I've been busy cooking up new projects, and cleaning up old ones. I'm really excited to share some of them with you, starting with Breed.
For those of you who're new to the site and my work, I do a yearly tradition during November. November is National Novel Writing Month, a beautiful and harrowing time in which life falls to the side to allow fledgling writers to challenge themselves to produce, produce, PRODUCE. The goal being to draft a novel (About 50,000 words) in a month. It's grueling, and a whole heap of fun.
And just to add a masochistic element to it, I flaunt my first drafts like stained skivvies. Coming shortly, you can check back every day for a new chapter, in effect reading my novel as I write it. Updates will be posted here, and on Wattpad.
A little about Breed, although I don't have a full blurb for it:
Superpowered teenagers cope with their first semester at college, including homework, bigotry, and a government that wants to lock them all up in Guantanamo Bay.
Breed's gonna have many more parts to come, as I really like writing this sort of thing. Comic nerd and all that.
“But there will be girls there?” Iago asked.
“There will be representatives of the fairer sex, yes, but I kind of think they'll be preoccupied by the bigotry and injustice.”
“So feminists, then?” he asked wryly.
“In all seriousness, I'm not trying to hound. I'm just trying to get out of my bubble, a little. I realized I've been 90% of my time cloistered with Drake, Pete and Cris. I'm on a long, lonely path towards just looking at one of them and saying, 'eh.'”
“That's not what makes people gay.”
“I know. I'm not talking about being gay. I'm talking about giving up, and just deciding to dry-hump whatever's nearby. If I were a bear, I'd be molesting a pine tree. And Drake's too fast- plus, despite the fact I've never actually seen him talk to a girl, present company excluded, I see a lot of them leaving his room the next morning. For a while my working theory was that it was like a reverse Narnia situation, that fantasy folk were fleeing out of his closet. But a fair few of them have walked around the apartment without pants, so I can safely say not a one of them was a fawn.”
“Every single one of them was foin.”
“Drake, we talked about this. What are the house rules?”
“No masturbating in the living room?”
“Okay, but rather than go through them from funniest to least funny, what's the pertinent one?”
“I'm not allowed to say 'foin,' especially not in the pursuit of a pun. In exchange for you not wearing those sweatpants outside of your room anymore.”
“Sweatpants?” Mikaela asked. “Do I even?”
“You didn't, but I'm telling you anyway,” Drake said. “He's got these sweatpants that I'm fairly certain must me older than he is. They cling so much, and they're fraying enough, that it's like he's wearing nothing but saran wrap. I still can't eat sausages; I even swore off hot dogs, for a while.”
“It can't be that bad.”
“If you want to know for sure, he can show them to you- but only in his room.”
“The point being that I need to get out more,” Iago said. “Not necessarily to creep on women, but just to move among them again, you know, reacclimate.”
“You realize there are women literally everywhere you could go on campus.”
“Yeah. But I think that's the problem. I don't go much. Mostly to Pete's. And classes. Then back here.”
“Okay. There will be women. Happy?”
“Actually I'm feeling kind of self-conscious about the whole thing now, to tell you the truth.”
“Philosophically I'm there, but this...” he started to turn up the volume on the TV, “gives me pause.”
It was the news, showing stock footage of a policecar with its lights flashing behind and anchor talking. “...fourteen year old Elijah Givens was killed when police kicked in his door. Authorities have now confirmed that the death was related to an online argument the boy became embroiled in concerning the transhuman protest downtown.”
“God,” Mikaela said, and dropped down on the couch beside Drake. “I met that kid,” she said.
“Really?” Iago asked.
“Yeah. He was previewing the campus my first day.”
“That's why I'm hesitating,” Drake said. “This isn't just us waving our polidicks around in the frigid air. There's repercussions, knock-on effects, and unintended consequences.”
“But that's exactly why we have to go through with this protest,” Mikaela said. “Because the reasonable response to protests- or worse, arguments about a protest- can't be murdering a 14 year old boy. And we can't let it be police violence and oppression, either. The more violent the cops get, the louder our protest has to get.”
“That's starting to get awfully close to 'turning the other cheek,'” Drake said, “and I'm way too atheist to be comfortable with that.”
“The conflict already started.” Mikaela said.
“We didn't start it but we tried to... fight it doesn't really work in a nonconfrontational context, does it?”
“There's going to be a confrontation; that can't be helped. But we either make peace or we make war, there is no third way.”
“And either way, the other side's going to be fighting like we want their extinction. Okay. But I may kick the first person who tells me to give peace a chance.”
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Linc said. He handed her a steaming cup of coffee. “Noticed you stirring, so I microwaved it. That's probably the third time, so hopefully it doesn't taste too gamey.”
“How long did I sleep?” Roxy asked.
“Quite a while. We all had a late night, but you... apparently had an even more exciting night than the rest of us.”
She frowned, then noticed the gun she'd taken from her attacker the night before sitting on his desk..
“It's a service weapon. Same kind carried by the Bellingham Police.”
Rox suddenly felt like she couldn't breathe.
“I put out some feelers, friend I had who used to be military police, now works corrections in the state. Apparently it was reported stolen a week ago.”
“You believe that?” she asked.
“Not for a second. Service weapons don't just go missing, not even off of 'volunteer' officers. You think you got a good look at the man who chased you?”
“No. It was dark. And I only ever saw him in a dark alley in the rain, and then only for a fraction of a second.”
“That was what it sounded like last night. You were barely coherent when Mayumi let you in.” He looked away. She could tell there was something else.
“What else did you find?”
He closed his eyes. “I guess you've got as much of a right to know as anybody.” He picked up the phone she took along with the gun, then thumbed through some menus, to a picture. It was Rox. “Recognize it?” he asked.
It was taken earlier the previous night. On the rooftop of the black prison in Seattle. The only people on that roof with them were cops. “Jesus,” she said.
“I think you've got the wrong guy with a messianic complex. Goddamned Kean. I knew it wasn't wise to bring you and Mikaela. It's one thing for the cops to threaten or even try to hurt one of us. But that wasn't your fight.”
“It is, though,” she said. “They beat the shit out of Mahmoud, and had no compunction against executing me in an alleyway for sympathizing with him. It's my fight exactly because they want to wipe out people like me.”
“But you're kids, in our charge. Untrained, undisciplined. If you're saying we should be preparing you for war- but also how to avoid it, I agree, one hundred percent. But until then, we have a duty to keep you out of harm's way, not put you directly in the line of fire.”
Rox's phone started to vibrate. She looked at the screen, saw it was Mira, and answered. “Where are you?” she asked.
“You did what?” she asked. “No. Nevermind. That'll keep. This won't. Is he there, with you?”
“Put me on speaker.” She hit a button and the phone beeped loudly.
“He can hear you.”
“Elijah, that boy we showed around last week. Somebody SWATted him.”
“SWATed?” Roxy asked.
“Called the police, told them he was involved in a hostage situation, talked it up enough they sent SWAT to kick in his door. He was surfing on his phone, and the cops thought it was a gun and-”
“Is he okay?” Rox asked.
“They killed him.”
“God,” Linc said.
“I just talked to him last night,” Rox said. “He'd talked himself into registering.”
“Do they know who?” Linc asked.
“It seemed like it was related to social media. He got into an argument, about registration. Then the next thing... I feel sick. Like we didn't do enough, when he was here, with us.”
“Hey,” Linc said, “this isn't on you- either of you. You did your best to orient him to the campus. But it wasn't your responsibility to scotch-guard him against any and all possible dangers, either. Look, tonight's starting to sound like it'll be even more volatile than any of us thought. You should come to the meet this afternoon. I think I'm going to try and turn it into an all-nighter, get movies, popcorn, pizza, have a stay-in.”
“Yeah,” Mira said, “I'll be there.”
“I'm not sure,” Rox said. “I might have someplace I've got to be.”
“She was scared,” Mayumi said softly.
“I can't even imagine Roxy scared,” Mikaela said, opening the door into the Saunders Sciences building.
“She had a gun. I don't think it was hers.”
“But she wasn't hurt?”
“At least there's that.” She led the way up a flight of stairs, then turned right down a hall. She led Mayumi past several open labs, then into one marked 209.
“Hey, Pete,” she said.
“Mikaela, I'm glad you stopped by,” Pete said, walking out of an aisle between two lab tables to greet them.
“Really?” she asked.
“Well, the experiment is not going terribly well,” Demi said.
“There is that,” Pete said. “You've met Demi. My other assistant,”
“I thought we agreed on 'partner,' at least for you and Cris,” Demi said with a grin.
“Is Cristobal.” A slighter man waved from the end of the table.
“And this is Mayumi, who's part of an exchange program. So what are you up to?”
“Failing,” Peter said.
“Could you maybe ask for an extension?”
“Not the assignment. My hypothesis.” She frowned. “I wanted to prove intelligent design. Seems simple enough, really. If there's a guiding principle behind design, it would be towards life, and living. We took a bacteria from the human gut. We're depriving it of its usual food, and instead raising them in environments that usually have either a neutral or even lightly antibiotic effect. The bacteria that survive become better acclimated to these new environments and food sources; that's fine, evolutionary observation tells that.
“For our hypothesis to work, the bacteria would have to evolve in such a way that it incorporates these new conditions without losing their ability to thrive in normal conditions. Because these are artificial conditions; you won't find them in nature, or even outside of a lab. Intelligent design says that they should evolve the ability to survive both in the artificial environment and be able to survive when placed back in natural conditions. Otherwise, they've evolved themselves into extinction, which is what every batch has done thus far.”
“So?” Mikaela asked. “Why does it have to be an all or nothing proposition?”
“Because intelligent design is an all or nothing idea. You can't claim that there's a plan to everything, except for the parts that seem random and unexplainable. There either is intelligent design, or there isn't. I'm proof- all of us in this room are proof- of evolution. Hell, I'm evolving, even now. When I came to school, I entered a biology program thinking I was smart enough to disprove evolutionary science. I was dumber then. And I don't just mean academically. I started taking IQ tests, when I noticed it. But I'm getting quantifiably smarter. And the smarter I get, the more I believe in evolution, and the less I can even pretend to believe in intelligent design.”
“I find his lack of faith disturbing,” Cristobal said from across the room. “I mean, excuse to do my best Vader voice aside, I actually do think he's put too much faith into this. I don't know if I believe in intelligent design, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in God. Of course, I've also made my peace with a God that could make me gay in a homophobic church. Just because God set up all of the dominos doesn't mean he had to guide how each fell into place.”
“I'm not here for the philosophical,” Pete glared at Demi and she rolled her eyes before continuing, “or religious debates. I'm here because Pete is seriously as smart as he thinks he is, and as obnoxious as that is, it's a chance to work with somebody brilliant. Plus he's fun, and he and Cris have this whole 'will they won't they' thing, which is adorable.”
“We won't,” Pete said.
“Yeah, but that's what you used to say about evolution, so...”
Pete flipped her off.
“I'm here because there's going to be a protest on campus over the transhuman spying program. Kean's organizing it through the student council and the school's social media. But I feel responsible for at least helping put the idea together. So I wanted to ask people I know personally to come.”
“Count me in,” Cris said.
“How old are you?” Mikaela asked.
“Seventeen,” he said. “Why?”
“Because there's a good chance there's going to be violence. So we're encouraging minors to stay home and signal boost on social media.”
“It's one thing to ask an adult to put themselves in harm's way for a cause. But it's not right to do it with a kid, no matter how mature.”
“You didn't ask. I volunteered.”
“Think I'll pass,” Peter said. “I get hassled enough for my sexuality, without adding outed transhuman or upstart to my public persona.”
“Plus he's going to be here, obsessing over his lab results,” Demi said, “which is the real reason he won't go. But only one of us is necessary to sit on this experiment- though our preliminary results make me expect nothing's ever going to hatch. So you can count me in. Drake coming?”
“I'm heading to his place next, see if he and Santiago want to come.”
“I texted him. He didn't deign to reply. So he'll show, if a pretty girl asks him.”
“You meant another pretty girl, right?”
“Aw,” Mikaela said. “Thanks for that.”
“No problem. And I'll see you there.”
“Thanks, for coming with me,” Mahmoud said from inside the quiet car. “After the day I've had, I think I would have been a quivering puddle by now without you.”
“It's no big deal,” Rox said noncommittally.
“Don't minimize. That's why it's been good having you here. Because you haven't treated me like a kid, like these are kid problems and the adults have better, more important, more adult things to deal with, when all I've wanted to do is shut down. I think I did, for most of the day. I, I got insanely close to admitting what I brought to school was a bomb.”
“But it wasn't.”
“But it's hard to remember that. When you've had hours of someone yelling at you, promising it will all go away, that you can leave just as soon as you admit to something you didn't do. Interrogation is a form of torture- especially at a black prison. I couldn't call my parents, and any time I asked for a lawyer they'd tell me something about working to get me a phone call. When I could feel each one of them had a cell phone in their pockets, that there were dozens of working landlines in the place.”
“It's bullshit,” Rox said.
“I know. That's why I wanted you to ride with me. Because even though you didn't say anything, I could tell you were thinking it.” He sighed hotly. “I mean, they're not wrong, to want to protect us. But what they don't understand, what I don't think adults ever really understand, is that they can't protect us. The ignorance and fear and even violence, it's such an indelible part of this world. What happened to me, what happened in Newtown. We don't grow up in a vacuum, away from the impacts of their decisions. They can't shield us from these things- not without changing the world. And for whatever reason, that just seems like too much of a hassle to most of them.”
“We could crash their protest,” Rox said.
“Maybe. It might just mean a premature cancellation of the protest- which sets us all back. I'm skeptical that a protest accomplishes anything. What did Black Lives Matter accomplish, other than deeper retrenchment and additional racial tension? Not that I'm saying they were wrong. But the 'other side' in this is a group who want to 'conserve' their way of life. It's a group that wants to keep things the way they are, who like to be able to casually use racial slurs or deny gays even the dignity of buying the wedding cake they want, just because that's the way it's always been, it's the way they're comfortable. When you ask them to stop hurting people, their reaction is pretend they're the ones being oppressed. To them, protest is an act of violence; not the kind that will make them think, but the kind that will get someone killed when they retaliate.”
“What's our recourse, then?”
“I don't know. Wait for the next plague to wipe out the oldest, most virulent bigots?”
“And that it comes before they push us into an all-out race war.”
“Breed war,” Mahmoud corrected.
“Unless it all fractures along out-group lines. What if it wasn't just transhumans, but also Latinos, people with African and Asian ancestry, LGBTQs, basically everyone, demanding acceptance and dignity together.”
“It'd be great,” he said, “if it doesn't come at the other end of a gun.”
“This is your spot,” the driver said as the car pulled up to the curb.
“I'm really glad I got to meet you,” Rox said, and hugged him.
“Don't say teary-eyed goodbyes yet,” Mahmoud said. “I get the feeling I'll be sticking around.”
He slid out of the car, and Rox followed.
“Wait,” the driver said. “I'm supposed to drive you home.”
“Yeah,” she said, “well, you can't. I'm walking. I need the air. But thanks for the offer.”
The hotel still had lights on, but the rest of the city, with the exception of plentiful street lamps, was dark. The wind made the night less bearable, but at least she was still bundled from the game. It seemed like days had passed since then.
She took out her phone, to distract herself from the chill. She missed a text from Elijah, and her heart started thumping quickly. He was in Seattle. She dialed him, and each second had to fight harder to keep from believing he'd been hurt.
“Hey, Rox,” he said, picking up. “I'm glad you called. Everything that's happening here.”
“I know,” she said. “I just left Seattle.”
“They canceled school, like it was a snow day. It was insane. The air outside our apartment was choked in smoke for most of the day.”
“So you weren't outside, in the protest?”
“My mom wouldn't let me. But I kept up on it with the local news, and the radio, and did what I could to spread the word on social media.”
“Today's been such a disaster,” she said, and realized it wasn't just the cold slowing her down.
“I know,” he said. “People are angrier and more scared than they've ever been.”
“So they blame us?”
“Some do. A lot. I guess it's kind of harder to parse, when there's so much conflict swirling around. But it feels like a lot of people here are looking at it through the lens of the World Trade Organization 'riot.' People still remember the police gassing and arresting crowds of bystanders- not even protesters, just people going about their daily lives. But nationally, it's ugly.
“Cox spent most of the day stirring up anti-transhuman sentiment. They keep repeating how the 'protests' were just a smokescreen, an excuse to finally cut loose on a world that doesn't give us our due. To show everyone how powerful we are, to make them afraid of us for a reason.
“It's weird, because every transhuman I know just wants to be left alone, to live out their lives in obscurity and play video games, listen to music, date awkwardly. They think we want to rule them by fear, because it's the only thing they could think to do with power.
“In a funny way, though not the way they'd expect, it forces my hand. Thinking about it, what I realized is registration's a lot like gun control. I think every gun owner ought to go through classes to get a license, and that their guns should all be registered with the government. At the same time it maybe makes me see some nuance in that argument I hadn't before- it's different when it's your name on one of the government's lists; of course, there isn't anyone in Congress advocating we round up gun owners and put them in internment camps they way some want to do with us. But the principal remains the same. The only way we get past this fear is to stop being scared of each other. We trust, or we prepare for war. And there's already been too much hurt. Even if that's the way the wind is blowing, it can't be the way I go.”
“Aren't you scared?”
“Terrified. But I try to put myself in someone else's shoes, you know, a guy who's probably my neighbor who spent the day in fear, huddled around his children to protect them from someone like me he's convinced was going to kick in his door to hurt them. If exposing myself, if making myself vulnerable is the only way to make him feel safe, maybe it's worth it. I hope so, anyway.”
“I'm really not sure.”
“Me, neither. But I think that's just the fear talking. And if we keep letting it rule us, there isn't any chance for peace.”
“You shouldn't,” Rox said. “I can't explain it, but sometimes I get this tingling sensation.”
“I don't know that I know you well enough for the puberty talk,” Elijah said.
“Don't be a jerk. My ability, most of the time it functions automatically, I don't concentrate or think about the outcomes I want, they just happen. But every once in a while I get this intuition that something is going to go badly unless I intervene. I don't always understand how I should intervene, but right now, it feels like something bad will happen if you go through with this.”
“Something bad will happen if we survive the night. Something bad will happen because life is a series of bad things happening, interspersed with better things happening. But we can't live our life based on what bad may come, but the good we want to last beyond us.”
“Please,” she said, on the verge of tears.
“I can't. I know what might happen. But I also know what happens when good people do nothing. But thank you. For talking to me. For caring. I know this won't be the last time we talk, but thank you, for trying to talk me out of it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I should go. It's late.”
“Sure. You have a good night, Rox. And take care of yourself.”
She wanted to throw her phone as she hung up, but she forced herself to gently slide it back into her pocket. She had been wandering blind, not paying attention to where she was gone. But her ability must have kicked in, because she'd actually discovered a quicker way back to her parent's.
That was the moment she heard a boot splash into a puddle behind her.
It was late enough there weren't other people on the streets. She hadn't seen anyone on her entire walk, which had been just as well, since she wouldn't have wanted anyone to hear how close she came to breaking down.
But the same intuition that led her to plead with Elijah now told her she needed to get home, quickly. She started with a few wider steps before launching into a run. She thought she could hear boots splashing through the puddles behind her, coming just as quickly as she was running, but she'd ran often enough in the rain to know that the echoes of it played tricks.
She darted down an alley she'd used as a shortcut before. Normally the gate was open, but normally, she was passing that way during daytime. The fence was shut, and she was caught flat-footed. That was how she knew that the splashes at the entrance weren't her own noises thrown back at her.
She started to turn back, when she was knocked to her knee.
She felt a gun barrel pressed against the back of her head, then heard the slide of an automatic pulled backward, chambering a round, then the clack of the trigger. But the hammer didn't fall. The gun was jammed.
She put her foot against the brick wall to her left, leapt off it and used her momentum to kick her pursuer in the face. He dropped both his gun and his phone. She grabbed the gun, and reached into her pocket for her own phone. Then she heard more boots splashing in her direction. She looked at the gun, and wasn't sure if it was going to work, and didn't want to have to test it. So she scooped up his phone and climbed over the fence, and disappeared into the rain.
Mikaela glanced at the seat across from her. Between the whirring engine of the helicopter, and their conspiratorial tones, she couldn't tell what Mahmoud and Rox were talking about, but that at least meant that they hadn't heard their discussion, either. She was glad he was having better luck with the younger girl than she had.
That thought made her frown, and she turned back towards Keen and Linc, who were sitting in the front of the helicopter, and facing forward. “Did you bring girls hoping we'd be nurturing?” she asked.
“I brought you because you were the right women for the job,” Kean said with a smile. “Gender was not a factor in that selection,” he glanced at Mahmoud, grinning widely at Rox. “Though I'd say it hasn't hurt, either.”
Mikaela turned just enough to see what he saw. But she got caught on the sight of Mahmoud's injuries, the swelling, the cuts, and the bruises. “It's still so much bullshit,” she said.
“I know,” Kean said, “just, please, for Mahmoud's sake...”
“I think she's right,” Linc said.
“I didn't say she wasn't, just that the boy's been through enough. The last thing he needs is to feel like he's the catalyst for yet another protest.”
“So you aren't going to try to stop it?”
“Of course not. I don't know if it will help. But being the transhuman Mecca endows us with certain responsibilities. If we don't speak up about injustices perpetuated upon our own, then it gives a stamp of tacit approval. What I would say is we should be diligent, more than duly. If possible, we should have police marching with us, in solidarity, rather than standing against us in riot gear.”
“Don't you think it should be up to him?” Roxy asked. “Whether or not he's kept out of people protesting his treatment?”
Mikaela's eyes narrowed; Rox's ability must have helped her and Mahmoud hear them, after all. “No,” Mikaela said. “Because if we were to ask, that would be putting pressure on him to join us. There's a necessarily coercive element to asking.”
“Yeah, well, then you should have spoken more quietly, because we could hear you over here. So he knows.”
“And unintentional coercion to the side, I want to be there,” he said. “Not just because this happened to me. But because it could happen to anyone. In my case, it was a 'bomb' I brought to school. But what about the next kid, one who the authorities decide is the bomb. Just because that kid might have control over their abilities won't stop police or administrators from being afraid of them. You fight ignorance with knowledge. And you can't do that by sitting quietly in the corner and waiting for people who are afraid of you and what you represent to acknowledge your humanity.”
“I agree, with all of that,” Mikaela said. “And I'd say you're wise beyond your years. But I still don't like the idea of exposing you, or any of the 'children' to harm this way. This isn't the 60s anymore. When people protested the second gulf war in Portland, they were pepper-sprayed and beaten. In liberal-ass Portland. And there was no public outcry. Instead, people were just happy not to have their commute further impacted. Violence is almost a given, here. And I don't think we can, responsibly, put either of you in that harm's way.”
“It isn't up to you,” Rox said.
“In a manner of speaking,” Kean began, “it is. I'll be granting permission for an assemblage on the campus- to those 18 and older. She's right. We can't ask minors, regardless of their maturity, to stand against all but assured police resistance. And I suspect the first thing Bellingham's police will do is request assistance from Seattle. It will turn bloody. In a way, it needs to, on a campus, where the students are not the aggressors, but the police are.
“But that is not to say that our minor students don't have a place in our protest. While numbers at a rally are crucial, what will decide whether or not the protest gains traction is virality. In Seattle, Police took down cell coverage just before the 'riot' broke out. Phones were broken or confiscated by the dozens, and I've heard reliably that the police have requested that Seattle data uploads be restricted during the coming days. Sympathetic video will not come out about Seattle until the news has moved on from the story, which will be cemented as one of transhuman violence against human authorities.
“Our younger students can counter that. They can spread the message through social media. And students like Mahmoud can keep the police from being able to shut down our phone grid, our internet or our power. They can ensure that our message, one of solidarity and hope, can perpetuate above the noise of violence, brutality, and fascism.”
“You said I was 'your kind,'” Mahmoud said, trying to keep up as they walked through the labyrinthine corridors. “Like black? Muslim? Transhuman?”
Mikaela smiled. “The trifecta,” she said.
“So you're all?” he said, gesturing to all three of them.
“And we'd like you to come back to Bellingham with us,” Kean said.
“That's... sudden,” Mahmoud replied.
“It is. I discussed it with your parents, before coming here. Unfortunately, the circumstances of your detention and arrest will make you a lightning rod. Those looking for a cause to rally around- and a symbol for those looking for someone to hate. I can't protect you from all of that. But at my school, I can guarantee that you will be surrounded by those who can understand what you're going through- at least as well as any of us can.”
“Would only be an hour away. I've made arrangements, for a scholarship, including bussing once a month to visit them.”
“Would I have to decide now?”
“No. But the conditions of your release did dictate you not be released within the city tonight. Your parents are already waiting in Bellingham, with a hotel room. I'd like you to tour the campus, see if, perhaps, it might interest you.”
“But I haven't graduated yet.”
“You would technically be enrolled in the satellite high school, along with Miss Molina.”
“Hey,” Rox said. The pushed their way out onto the roof. Rain was pounding down, and they walked to the helicopter.
“We good to take off?” Kean asked.
“This is a light misting in Washington,” Linc said with a grin.
“Then get us the hell into the sky.”
“You got it.” Linc started the chopper, and lifted off of the roof.
Kean heaved a sigh of relief. “Now that we're out of the lion's den, Mahmoud, I'd like to formally introduce you to Rox Molina, who's about your age. And our pilot is Lincoln Martens, formerly of the U.S. Army, and now the head of our counseling department.”
“Rox. That's a cool name,” Mahmoud said.
“Yeah. My parents named me Roxy; I think they didn't want it obvious that I was Mexican, but 'Molina' doesn't exactly scream white European. And I might be light-skinned, but I think people can tell, anyway.”
“I don't know that I would have guessed. But really, anyone lighter than me I don't make any assumptions about.”
“So you really built a fission reactor?”
“It was just a science fair project,” he said, pantomiming the size of the device.
“So you built a miniature reactor? That's even cooler.”
“Yeah, I'm not so sure,” he said, touching his swollen face.
“I know getting stomped wasn't cool. But what you did was- so cool simple-minded cops felt threatened by it. Which makes it cooler.”
“I guess. I just wanted to make something cool.”
“You did. How the hell does that feel?”
“It hurts,” he said.
“No-” She nodded to the smoke still billowing from the city as they overflew. “That.”
“It's fucked up. I shouldn't have been arrested. Shouldn't have been disappeared to a secret prison where I wasn't even booked. People shouldn't have had to protest any of that, and there shouldn't have been violence.”
“No. There was a different part of the protest. You hear about the NSA tracking program?”
“All I've heard all day was variations of the question, 'Why did you build a bomb?'”
“In response to your arrest, a hacker released records of an NSA transhuman tracking program. I think that pushed the protesters. And probably the police, too, made everyone feel violated.”
“Huh,” he said.
“I guess I, I sort of knew about it, already. Not in so many words. But I knew my data was being collected. At least, it was, until last month. I didn't know what it was being used for, so I rerouted it. Took myself off the grid, so to speak.”
“You can do that?”
“It's the other side of my ability. I'm a technopath. I can 'talk' to electronics, and understand when they talk back. And in a limited sense, I can kind of ask them to function differently. Within parameters. The electrical pathways are all still the same; it's like how a telepath can't rewire a human brain, or make someone do something they don't know how to, but they can ask for something that person could already theoretically do.”
“But you can shield yourself from surveillance. That's really cool.”
“Actually,” he adjusted the glasses on his face, “right now I'm shielding all of us.”
“The NSA have gone a little crazy over it, too. I don't think they like that you were able to spring me. So they're trying to track the helicopter, and tap your phones. And the longer they can't, the more desperate the attempts to get any kind of information. They stopped trying to get camera or audio. Now they're just trying to triangulate with cell towers. I keep routing them to the President's cell phone. I think she and her husband are doing... things. She's going to be unhappy with them come the morning.”
“Ew, and I don't think I've ever been jealous of somebody else's ability before. It's kind of funny. I think your power should completely frighten public officials, but not for any of the reasons they arrested you. But because you could totally spy on them back.”
Mikaela tensed as she went through the metal detector. She went through everything on her person, wondering what might set it off, and whether or not that would set off the cop.
“See, nothing to worry about,” the uniformed officer said, handing her the dish with her keys in it. “I'm going to have to pat you down, so if you'll put your feet in those circles on the ground, there.”
Mikaela looked down, and positioned her feet in the circles. Her muscles were tense, and the entire facility felt like a place out of her father's worst nightmares, but she was standing in the middle of it, despite the fact that the cops didn't want her there.
The woman paused. “It's okay,” she said softly. “I worked TSA, before here, and I recognize fear when I see it. I ain't going to bite you. And you're not going to hurt me, right? You're just here to see the boy. And I just got to make sure you aren't smuggling anything in. We ain't antagonists; nobody here wants anybody to get hurt.” She sighed. “Cops can lose sight of that fact. It ain't us versus the public, or we're already lost. We work for the public, with them, to make communities safe. When we do that, when we remember that, and more important remember to show the community that, that's when police get to be the good guys, when we get that respect so many cops think they're due. You okay for me to start?”
Mikaela nodded her head slowly.
“Okay. You tell me if you need me to stop, or slow down. That's the other thing I think cops forget. This ain't routine for everybody. We may do this forty hours a week, but for Jane Q. Public, this can be some scary shit.” She gently patted her way up one leg, then the next. Then she patted Mikaela's sides, and her arms. “You're clear. He's in his own holding cell. I'll take you in to see him.”
The officer beckoned, and Mikaela followed her outside of her circles. It was only a few doors down, before she stopped and opened a door with her keys. “I know he's just a kid, and so are you; I don't expect trouble. But procedure says I stand here, outside the door. I ain't going to listen, but if you yell for me, that I'll hear, even through the door. There's also a button, on the wall, that will make noise out here, if you need to get out for any reason.”
“Okay,” Mikaela said. “Thanks.”
“We serve and protect,” she said. “I'm just doing what's in the job description.”
She opened the door, and Mikaela stepped inside. The room was lit by a single bulb, just enough illumination that she could see Mahmoud's bruised and swollen face. It was worse than it had been in the videos, either because the swelling hadn't happened yet, or because they kept hitting him.
“Jesus,” Mikaela said.
“Mohammad,” he said, “though it's an easy mistake to make.”
Mikaela smiled. “I can't believe they left you like this.”
“I know. No wiFi, no TV.” He smiled, then realized she wasn't smiling anymore. “Sorry. I've been in here a while; deadpanning helps.”
“Whatever helps you cope,” she said. “Excuse me.” She pushed the button on the wall, and the door opened immediately.
“Everything all right?” the officer asked.
“I want ice, and bandages. Painkillers, if you've got them.”
“Okay. I'll see what I can come up with.”
“And is there any reason to keep him cuffed?”
She frowned. “Not that I can see. I'll bring keys back with me.” The officer shut the door again, and locked it.
“So, not that I'm complaining, because any friendly face is better, but who are you?”
“My name's Mikaela.”
“That name's pretty. And so are you.”
She smiled. “You're saying that because you've taken too many blows to the head.”
“And because I want to avoid more.” The door opened, and the officer came back in. She handed Mikaela a small box of supplies, then walked over to Mohammad.
“Hands out,” she said. He held out his wrists, and she used a key to open his cuffs, then took them with her. “Play nice,” she said, before leaving again.
Mahmoud rubbed his wrists. “You never realize how much those things chafe until you spend hours in them. Thanks. I don't know why I didn't think to ask to have them taken off.”
“I don't know that they would have listened.” Mikaela poured some rubbing alcohol onto a cue tip. “This will sting.”
“It already does,” he said. She jabbed it into a cut above his eye. “Ow, ow, ow!”
“So you built a bomb?” she asked, and blew on the cut to dry the alcohol off it.
He sighed hotly. “It wasn't a bomb. It was a fission reactor. There's some similarity, but not much. I mean, my physics teacher knew it wasn't a bomb. But then the principal...”
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn't mean to open up a wound.”
“Not your fault. I went to school this morning thinking I'd impress my teacher. And she was very impressed. Not enough to hug me, or anything, but...”
“Are you telling me you're hot for teacher?” Mikaela asked with a grin.
“You haven't seen this teacher,” he said.
“That's true. And I've definitely had hots for many a teacher- so I'm not judging.”
“But all I wanted was to show off. I didn't think... I mean, I understand fission isn't a toy. But it's also not something to be afraid of. I mean, if you could mass produce my generator, it could revolutionize the way that people interact with the power grid.”
“And they kicked your ass for it. Here.” She handed him the ice pack. “Hold this, wherever it hurts most.” He pushed it over the split in his forehead. “How much do you know, about what happened out there?”
“What do you mean?”
“People protested your arrest. And there was a riot.”
“Here,” she said, and gave him a couple of pills, and a disposable cup of water.
He took them, then handed her the cup. “You're not just playing good cop, are you?”
“I'm not a cop,” she said. “I'm not sure what I'm doing here, honestly, but I'm definitely not a cop. And fuck them, for doing this to you.”
“Don't thank me. This isn't okay. Even if you weren't 'my kind.' People shouldn't do this kind of thing- especially not those we trust to keep us safe.”
“That's not always a popular opinion,” the Dean said, as the cell door opened. “Least of all in a place like this.”
“And that's the problem,” she said defiantly. “Cops ought to be the ones most incensed by this kind of violence, because not only is preventing violence part of their mandate, but it erodes public trust even in good police.”
“I agree. And that's why we're taking Mr. Mohammad away from here.”
“Really?” he asked, rising. “I'm free?”
“After a manner of speaking,” he said.
Roxy had never flown in a helicopter before. Watching cities fly past beneath as the sun began to set was an entirely new experience.
She still wasn't sure how to feel about Mikaela. Something about her rubbed Rox the wrong way, but especially now, on the same mission together, it was hard not to feel a shared purpose with the other girl.
“I'm sorry,” she said quietly, and Mikaela perked up. “I know I've been kind of a bitch. I think... I like being the go-to person, and it seems like you've been stepping on my toes a lot, lately. But that really doesn't excuse it, either. And I'd rather bury the hatchet here, than keep sniping.”
“Yeah,” Mikaela said. “And I'm sorry, too. I was so wrapped up in being new, I never really stopped to ask what me coming here meant for those who were already here. And if I'm honest...”
“No, you should definitely lie to me,” Rox deadpanned.
She smiled. “It sucks that you've got so much of your shit together. I'm four years older than you, or thereabouts. And we're both in practically the same boat. It's definitely intimidating, knowing that someone who can't even drink yet is basically my equal.”
“Or vote,” Rox said.
“You enjoy twisting the knife, don't you?”
“Immensely.” she said with a grin.
“It's there,” Kean said from the front of the chopper.
“You sure?” Linc asked. “Because it's a thoroughly nondescript warehouse in a sea of thoroughly nondescript warehouses. Of particular note, most nondescript warehouses aren't reinforced for helicopter landings.”
“It's the correct building, and yes, they have reinforced the roof for transports such as ours. Useful for completing the disappearance of a prisoner.”
“And they know we're coming?”
“Yes. They won't be welcoming us with open arms, but they also want be welcoming us with firearms, either.”
“You really know how to set a guy's mind at ease,” Linc said, and started their descent. The wind buffeted their helicopter as it neared the roof, which shook as it touched down. Immediately, men with assault rifles and riot gear ran towards them.
“I thought you said they wouldn't be welcoming us with firearms,” Linc said.
“I said they wouldn't be firing them, not that they wouldn't be wearing them. It's a show of force- an attempt at intimidation.”
“I don't like bullies.”
“I'm aware. And that's why you'll be staying with the helicopter. I wouldn't put it past them to tamper with it, for one. And for another, it removes you from a temptation to start swinging. Ladies? We're needed inside.”
Rox and Mikaela followed Kean out of the helicopter. An overzealous officer pointed his rifle at them as they passed. Kean melted him with a glare. “They're students, not terrorists. Show a modicum of restraint.”
They passed through a set of doors. Inside, it looked like any other office building, completely nondescript on the inside as well as on the out. But that made a degree of sense. It wasn't likely the city was going to allocate a large budget for redecorating their black prison sites.
“They let us in,” Mikaela said breathlessly.
“Yes. I find things tend to fall into place around Miss Molina,” he said, and smiled at Rox.
A man with short, dirty blond hair and a disheveled suit and tie was waiting for them on the other side. “Dr. Kean,” he said curtly, “if you'll follow me.”
“Yes. I was hoping to send one of the students I brought with me to meet with Mohammad. Simply to try to calm him down. The boy has been through quite a lot.”
“Sure. They'll have to go through the metal detectors, and a pat down.”
“Of course. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that your officers are twitchy.”
“No one's supposed to know about this facility, let alone land a helicopter on top of it.”
“And you don't think the very existence of such a facility flies in the face of the public's trust? Shouldn't it be the rest of us made twitchy by this development?”
“Hey, I think we all get to act twitchy on this one.”
“Yes, but your men were pointing automatic weapons in the faces of college students. That's the problem with treating our kind as something monstrous. Those foolish enough to believe the propaganda will treat us as you would monsters.”
“I'll give them a talking to.”
“I appreciate the gesture. But it's a futile one. It's the fear that's been mongered into the boy that's at issue, not that he acted on it.”
“Yeah, well, I don't control the evening news, though god knows I wish I did.”
“While it's true enough that no one of us can control things, it does not absolve us of our place in the machine, or the evil that machine does.”
“These are the holding cells.” Their guide stopped in front of an officer in a blue uniform. “One of the girls is going to go in to see Mohammad. Put her through the usual screening.” She nodded her head.
“Mikaela, if you would,” Kean said. Mikaela's eyes became wide. She had assumed Rox was here to visit him, since she was closer to the boy's age, and had more experience dealing with orienting new students. He sensed her hesitation. “It's why I asked you along. You're still new, still have that wide-eyed view of our world. Mahmoud has been through quite the ordeal, already. You're a friendly face, who understands what it's like to be thrust quite abruptly into a new world. And I need Roxy myself, at the moment. We may need all the luck we can get. Just listen,” he said finally. “I have every faith in you.”
Dean Kean was waiting outside for them, adjusting his tie. He smiled at Mikaela. “I'm sorry to have used go-betweens. While your phones are indeed on record, I find it unnerves people if I call them completely out of the blue. And I knew you were with Lincoln.”
“Your little game. Security flagged it the moment the fireworks started. Normally I would have put an end to it, but I trust Lincoln to keep the grounds intact. Mostly.”
“And I do,” Linc said. “Mostly.”
“Except for that incident the semester before last. We had to resod a goodly portion of the north field.”
“Teaching kids to control their abilities isn't an exact science. Sometimes you end up with a lot of chaos before you find control.”
“I wasn't blaming you, Lincoln,” Kean soothed.
They arrived at the Chase Administrative Center. “Administration?” Rox asked.
“My chopper's on the roof here.” He led them through the Chase lobby, and to an elevator. He opened it with a key, and pushed the button for the roof. He had to use his key again to get the elevator moving.
“So why are we choppering, then?” Mikaela asked once the doors were closed. “I mean, I'm flattered we're going, I just don't know where, or why.”
“Seattle,” Kean said. “Though the specific of the 'where' is very much tied into the why. We're going to where they're holding Mohammed.”
“I might have assumed that much, but that's maybe a third of the answer.”
“I suppose it is. Mahmoud has been taken by the police; I dare say it's likely you heard at least that much. The supposed riots in Seattle? They were in part a protest of the NSA's dealings. But the majority of the rally was designed to advocate for his release, a detail that has somehow managed not to be reported by the media. You see, he hasn't been processed, isn't accessible to a lawyer, or his parents. He's been disappeared, to a police black site.”
“A black site?” Rox asked.
“I suppose you two are a bit young to remember them. Black sites, unofficial prisons, came to some degree of notoriety during the height of the ill-conceived War on Terror. They were run by the CIA, who housed prisoners at them to be intimidated and tortured.”
“It was a black eye,” Linc said, “on our country, and particularly, on the fighting men and women who made most of those captures in the first place. We lost a lot of standing in the world, thanks to that crap.”
“Right,” Kean said, as the elevator doors opened. “Check that she's fueled, and take care of pre-flight.” Linc nodded and started to jog towards the helicopter. Kean turned right, towards the lip of the building that overlooked the commons. “It was one thing, housing 'undesirables' in little miniature Guantanamos abroad. But it's a far more pernicious thing to hold a minor who is also a U.S. Citizen at such a location on American soil. The police deny even having him, but I have sources that inform me otherwise.”
“That covers a lot of the what,” Mikaela said. “But it still doesn't tell me why you need us.”
“You each have your role to play,” Kean said.
“Are we mounting a rescue?” Rox asked.
“Nothing so... dramatic,” Kean said. “It's a visitation. And I can be quite... persuasive.”
Mikaela looked out at the quiet of the commons. It was uncharacteristically quiet. Word had traveled fast. “People were afraid of us before, but now...”
Kean nodded gravely. “I have it on good authority the 'riots' were manufactured. Undercover officers providing the necessary spark to carry tension over into confrontation. Clearly, they couldn't allow the story to become about how the police kidnapped a child from school after beating him. So they turned the story into one about how inherently violent a population they already have a history of oppressing can be. Nice, tidy, and thoroughly awful.”
“We're all set,” Linc said.
“Ladies,” Kean said, turning with a sweep of his hand. “I promised you a helicopter ride.”
A television anchor stared into the camera, and licked her lips before beginning. “Early reports confirm that the leak of the NSA spying program was a response to the arrest earlier today of 14 year old Mahmoud Mohammad.” They flashed video clearly taken on a cell of a scrawny Middle Eastern boy being led away in handcuffs, blood still trickling from his nose. “The bloodied boy was led from his school in handcuffs after bringing a thermonuclear device to the school's science fair. The 'perp walk' following the arrest was caught on video by several students using their personal phones.
“Police have thus far been unable to explain why force was necessary to restrain Mohammad, who weighs less than 120 pounds, and by all accounts cooperated fully with the police, and did not resist when they took him into custody. A police spokesman said he, 'Must have resisted arrest.'
“Local officials, as well as a spokesperson for the Department of Energy are still uncertain how the boy came to possess fissile material enough to build such a device. Police have been reluctant to rule out a terrorist connection.”
“That's insane,” Mikaela said.
“That's a heap of insane things,” Demi said.
“What does it mean?” Sonya asked, trembling.
“Right now,” Linc said, “it means you all need to be careful. This is the kind of thing that gets people riled up. Keep your heads down, try and stay in groups. In fact, if you want, you could all use my Netflix, order a pizza, and stay in here.” His phone started to ring. “Crap. Got to take this. But discuss, figure out your options.”
“Drake?” Mikaela asked.
“He had me at pizza.”
“I've been held worse places under the threat of violence.”
“What about you?” Drake asked her.
“There's no way in hell I'm going back to my apartment. So I'm either crashing here or your place.”
“And we've only just gotten the scent of your sleep-toots out of the couch. So yeah, we'll stay here.”
“Sleep toots?” Mayumi asked.
“I made the mistake of spending too much time with Drake. He eats pizza for two and a half meals a day. It'd make anybody gassy.”
Ben was having trouble listening to what Rox was talking about, because he was close enough to Mikaela's group that their voices were blending together. But he had heard them talking about being gassy, and he'd been holding something terrible in since they came inside. A peaceful grin spread across his lips.
Rox smelled it first. “Goddamnit, Tso,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said. “I overheard them talking about having gas, and...”
“Sympathy gas is both not a thing, and definitely not a special ability.”
“It feels special.”
Cris smiled at him.
“Don't encourage him,” Rox said.
“I'm all for staying,” Mira said, and also smiled at Ben, “and dibs on the chair.”
“Oh, man,” Cris said, crinkling his nose. “You two are going to share the chair, aren't you?”
“Why the thought had never crossed my mind,” Mira said, batting her eyelids innocently, “but now that you mention it...”
Rox looked to Cris, and raised her eyebrows. “Yeah. Not the first time I've been on lock-down. Guatemala is super Catholic, and even as a little tyke I wasn't the most masculine kid. So whenever there was a hate crime anywhere near our home, my mom would lock me up like I was Anne Frank. So this will be like old times, only I'd kind of pity the idiot bigot who stumbled onto this campus.”
“'Rene?” Rox asked.
“If you're staying, I'm staying,” she said, unaware that she was staring at Ben when she did.
“Sonya? That just leaves you.”
“So long as somebody's willing to huddle with me for some warmth, I'm good.”
“I'm sure there'll be plenty of body heat to go around.”
“Kae, Rox,” Linc said from the quieter half of the room.
They both walked towards where Linc and Anita were standing. They exchanged a look, and Mikaela gave a little nod. “We're staying,” Rox said.
“Think we'll stay, too,” Mikaela said. “And Kae?”
“I heard Demi call you that, and I like it. I had an aunt named Kay.”
“And I remind you of her?”
“Not in the slightest. She was an old lady who collected way too many creepy dolls. And she married a man who looked like Orville Redenbacher.”
“That does sound hot.”
“You'd be surprised; Ernie worked that bow tie. But it's also not why I called both of you over. That was the boss.”
“God?” Mikaela asked.
“Worse. The Dean. Ms. Fessuns' going to stay here with the rest of the students, as much to make sure this doesn't turn into a kegger. But he wants to fly you to to Seattle.”
“If he wanted us, why did he call you?”
“He wants me to do the flying.”
“I'm sure it would be less dramatic if you just told us what was going on,” Linc said.
“And I'm sure it wouldn't suffice,” Anita said, switching on the television in his office.
The students crowded inside, around them in a half moon. She flicked through a few channels, before finding a Seattle news station, showing footage of smoke rising up out of the city from a traffic helicopter.
“For those of you just joining us,” a woman narrated from the studio, “there is smoke rising from the middle of downtown Seattle. A transhuman protest today turned violent when confronted by police in riot gear. Transhumans and transhuman sympathizers were protesting the NSA's transhuman tracking program, which was outed earlier today by a transhuman hacker.
“The program is similar in scope and dimension to the kinds of intelligence gathering revealed by infamous leaker Edward Snowden. However, this program is targeted specifically at those exhibiting extrahuman capabilities, regardless of their immigration status. It's important to note that this program is separate to the Transhuman Registration Act passed by Congress and administered by the Department of Justice, though presumably both programs interact.”
Anita changed channels to Cox News. Four pundits were seated around a table. “These animals set fire to downtown Seattle,” an overweight man in a suit bloviated. “We aren't talking a drum circle jerk passing legalized pot around. These aren't people; human beings don't act like this.”
They cut to a video of a man's hand transforming into a claw and extending, and tearing a riot shield away from a policeman with it. Then a second clip played, fire erupting out of a woman's mouth and engulfing another cop's shield and helmet.
“They don't want law and order,” a woman with a scowl said as they cut back from the video. “They want to rule, by fear and coercion. If we don't do something to stop this, I think we're witnessing humanity's last days.”
“Is anybody else hungry?” Drake asked. Mikaela turned and blinked at him. “What? That kind of high-quality xenophobia makes me hungry. Or all of the physical activity.”
“We aren't foreigners,” Ben said.
“Xenophobia also covers anything 'strange,' not just foreigners. Linguistics major. Trust me on this one. And if it isn't white, Anglo and particularly Saxon, these protestants want nothing to do with it.”
“What about her?” Irene asked, pointing to the scowling woman, who was a shade darker than Rox and was likely Latina.
“She's light enough that for all they know it's just a dark foundation. Or their bigotry has evolved to a point where it's not the color of your skin, but whether or not you're a big enough xenophobe to hang.”
“There's still some leftover pizza on my desk,” Linc said.
“Cool,” Drake said, and followed his nose away.
“Though how anyone could eat at a time like this, I don't know.”
“You got a microwave? Cause that's how I'd prefer to eat it.”
“I think he meant emotionally,” Mikaela said.
“I'm a stress eater,” he said, opening the box.
“And you eat when you're calm. And once while you were sleeping.”
“I was on some heavy painkillers,” he said. “The Ambien haze is real. And I fell asleep eating pizza. But I was still hungry, so I dreamed I was still eating- and I was, apparently.”
“Sure,” Ben said, “who hasn't done that?”
“Ahem,” Cris said. “Am I the only one still preoccupied with the race war on the television?”
“Not a race war,” Drake said around a bite of room temperature pizza. “We aren't a different race- just a different breed.”
“The breed war, then,” Cris said.
“I think most of us are in shock,” Rox said, and put a hand on Cris' shoulder.
“How'd this happen?” Irene asked from the back.
“I'll show you,” Anita said, and flicked to another channel.
“The prodigals return,” Linc said as Mayumi, Mikaela and Drake arrived, each holding a steaming drink carrier with four mugs in them.
“Is this the real reason you paid for our coffee?” Mikaela asked. “So we'd mule some back for you?”
“'Mule' makes it sounds so sordid,” Linc said.
“Also like we carried it in our butts,” Drake said.
“I prefer 'smuggled.' It makes you sound like pirates.” He took one of the coffees, peeled back the lid and drank. “Yarr!”
The frisbee game collapsed, as the players gathered around for coffee. “Creamers?” Ben asked.
“Yeah,” Drake said, balancing the drinks in one hand and reaching into his pocket. He dropped several sealed creamers into the center of the cup holder.
“So, now that you three are done running coffee for me,” Linc said, pausing to take a quick sip, “how would you feel about a quick scrimmage? It would even out our teams.”
“Hell, no,” Rox said.
“The math checks out, Rox, no matter how vehemently you disagree.”
Cris made a show of counting on his fingers, before holding up both his hands. “He's right, it'd be 5-5.”
“I meant we're not going to play with them. We're going to play against them.”
“I think seven on three is probably a little slanted, even if they're older,” Linc said. “So I'll play for their team, too.”
“What?” she asked.
“We'll give you first possession. Sound fair?”
“Good. Then get to walking.”
“What have you gotten us into?” Mikaela asked.
“Ultimate frisbee. Normal rules apply. Mostly. And you can use whatever powers you've got, provided you don't hurt the disc or the players. Except me. My powers aren't any good unless I'm willing to essentially cheat, so I'm just a normal guy, for the purposes of this game.”
“Kae?” a familiar voice said from behind them.
“Dem?” she asked, spinning around.
“You guys playing?” Demi asked.
“Room for one more?”
“Sure. And I think I can even things out just a little more.” She pulled a compact out of her purse, and looked inside. A double of her climbed out of the mirror, stretching until it was a full-sized copy standing next to her. “If anybody's got more reflective surfaces, I can pull a few more out.” She looked at Demi.
“Sorry,” she said, “I do whatever touch-ups at home. I don't primp on the go.”
She shook her head.
“Oh well, that still gets us a team of six. Four of us essentially vanilla human, but hey, at least we're prettier.” Both Mikaelas grinned at the same time.
“Anything the rest of us should know about anybody's powers?” Linc asked. Drake disappeared, only to reappear on the opposite side of him. “Teleportation. Cool. And Demi zaps things; it ain't our first rodeo together. All right. Since we're outnumbered, I think we'll have to at least partially run a zone defense. Drake will take the back field, since he can cover the most ground. At least coming up the field, we'll want to coalesce around specific players. Anyone have a preference for who they guard?”
“I'll take Roxy,” the Mikaelas said in unison.
“You've got that backwards. It's their side that has more players, so only one of you can guard her.”
“I'll take Big Thunder- Ben. Dem, you think you can keep up with Rui?”
“I can try.”
“That leaves Irene, Mira, and I'm forgetting someone, that's right, Sonya. Mayumi, you want to help Drake watch the backfield. It's likely the play is coming through one of the others, but if we give them too much leeway otherwise, they'll have an easy time of it.”
Linc reeled back with the Frisbee, and let fly. He bolted for Ben as Rox snatched the disc from the air. “Endzone,” she yelled, as she threw to Ben. The disc arrived a second before Linc, and too high for him to catch otherwise.
Ben turned and threw the disc towards the goal as Rox ran past. Fast as she was, there was almost no chance she'd catch it, until a surprise wind kicked up, giving the disc just enough hang for her to dive beneath it as it fell.
“Well, crap,” Linc said laughing. “That did not go to plan.”
“Enjoy the walk,” Rox said from the endzone, waving goodbye at them.
“My bad,” Drake said. “I thought she was going to miss it, and we'd get the turnover from where they threw it.”
“It's fine. And on the bright side,” Linc said, we were already most of the way downfield. He shoved his hands in his pockets and his keys jangled. He frowned, and fished them out. A polished chrome US Army keychain dangled off them, and he furrowed his brow. “Mikaela?” he tossed the keys in her direction. “This work?”
She caught them. “Hmm. “I'll give it a try.” Suddenly, another Mikaela crawled out of the keychain.
“So how does that work, exactly?” he asked. “What do they arrive with?”
“Usually the same kind of crap I've got on me.”
“Then maybe you should get yourself a reflective keychain, so you can pull as many as you need.”
“Might be worth doing.”
“Might it also lead to a self-replicating human virus, essentially the worst fears about nanotechnology, but made worse by the fact that it's happening on the macro and not the micro scale?” Demi asked.
“She may have a point,” Linc said. “So use with care. As for our play, I want to Trojan Horse. If they haven't been paying attention they may not know we've suddenly got another play. All the Mikaela's group on the right side in a flying V, everybody else on the left, I'll take the center. Everybody else goes about a third of the way up the field before breaking apart, Mikaelas do the same at 2/3. In the confusion they'll lose somebody.”
Rox threw the disc, which went over Linc and was caught by Demi. She threw immediately to Linc. “Go!” he yelled, and his columns advanced. Demi's group broke apart like a human firework, and Rox's group compensated. Then Drake began to teleport around the field.
“Teleporter!” Rox yelled.
“I'm on him,” Rui said, becoming larger as the space between his atoms increased, until he was invisible.
“I'm open!” Drake yelled, only for Rui to reappear in front of him. “Teleporter?” he asked.
“No, it just smells like that sometimes when I teleport,” he deadpanned.
Rox's team had enough people they thought they could easily do man to man. Ben was coming towards Linc, and he was tall enough he wasn't sure how well he'd be able to throw around him. Mikaela's group fractured apart.
“Crap, there's another one,” Rox said. She bolted for the unaccounted for Mikaela, and he threw. Ben swiped at the air, just missing the disc. It floated past Rox, past Mikaela. She dove, with her arms thrust forward, as Rox did the same. Mikaela was just enough ahead that Rox landed on her without touching the disc as she caught it.
The impact knocked the wind out of both women's lungs, but it was Mikaela who recovered fastest. “Much as I enjoy the warmth from this huddle,” Mikaela said, “you should get up and start walking.” Rox looked up, and saw that she'd caught it in the endzone.
“Pure luck,” Rox said, standing, and offered Mikaela a hand to her feet.
“I thought that was your department.”
“We'll see next play,” she said, and started to jog down field.
“Take off the gloves,” Rox said.
Linc threw, this time giving it as much hang time as possible. By the time Rox caught it he was within a few paces of her. She tried for a pass to Ben, but he knocked it out of the air. He picked it up and handed it to her. “You maintain possession,” he said.
She pivoted, looking for an open player to pass to.
“Do we have to introduce a countdown?” Linc asked.
“Little distraction, Ben?” Rox called.
Ben held his hands out to the ground, and the earth began to shake.
Mira made a run for it in the confusion. Electricity arced through Demi, and into the snow in front of Mira. She paused, then grinned, and stepped into the electricity. Then she grabbed hold of Demi's waist, and pulled her off-balance. To her surprise, Demi matched her strength, and they deadlocked. “Ladies,” Linc yelled from downfield, “this isn't a contact sport.”
Rui stepped off the snow, and floated before catching fire. He hovered above the heads of the other defenders. “Have you got him?” Linc asked.
Drake teleported in front of him, before falling back to the earth. “Kind of,” he said when he landed, then teleported in front of him again. “Ish,” he said,” landing a second time.
“Sonya?” Rox bellowed.
“Can't,” she said. “Too many people on the field, moving too quick- might actually kaboom someone.”
“Hail Mary it is, then,” Rox said.
“Crap,” Linc said. She threw over his head.
Rui saw the throw, and that it was going to pass on the opposite side of the field. He flattened his body out, and converted more of the atoms in his lower body to plasma, rocketing off in the direction of the throw. He had never flown like that, and even the slight wind buffeted him.
Drake teleported in front of him, narrowly missing the throw as it knocked into Rui's face.
Linc froze, and Rox stopped mid-step when she recognized her alternate literature teacher ducking beneath Rui as he flailed through the air with the Frisbee between his teeth.
“I caught it!” Rui said from the ground after spitting the disc out.
“In your mouth,” Ben said. “Like a dog.”
“So I'm pretty sure we dropped it in something that came from a dog not twenty minutes ago.”
“Ugh,” Rui said, spitting and making a crinkled face.
“Ms. Fessuns,” Linc said, a little out of breath. “Timmy fall in a well?”
“I think I preferred the other variant of that joke, the one where you didn't intimate I was a dog. But no. You need to see this, all of you. Now.”
“I'm still not sure why I'm here,” Drake said nervously as they passed the smoking field.
“Moral support,” Mikaela offered. “And because Demi had to work. And maybe to ogle high school girls.”
“Or possibly be exploded by ultimate Frisbee shrapnel.”
“Hey, you knew the risks going in.”
“I didn't. I'm pretty sure you made me think we were getting a pretzel, not strolling leisurely past a Vietnam War reenactment.”
“We just had pizza.”
“I had left-overs.”
“Which you didn't even finish.”
“I'm in college. If I don't have at least a few slices of pizza in my fridge at all times, I freak out the way my Great Depression surviving great grandmother did whenever there was an empty space on the shelf of her walk-in pantry. And a pretzel sounds good. You got me to leave the warmth and comfort of my apartment by hinting we'd get one.”
“We will. This is on the way to the pretzels.”
“You might think that, since you're still new here and maybe don't have a good grasp on the geography. But it's not even kind of true.”
“Hush.” Mikaela said as they approached Lincoln, who was standing on the sidelines and shaking his head. “Did we miss the Fourth of July?” she asked.
“Some of the running starters got a little... enthusiastic,” turning towards her. “But I'm glad you're here.”
“Yeah, how did you?”
“Tucker mentioned you. As did Rox. And the Dean.”
“He mentions everybody, at one point or another. He's very hands on with the student body... that came out so much more wrong than I meant it. But it's a smaller group that comes mid-year like this, so students that catch his fancy tend to get a little more attention.”
“That's all kinds of creepy. And it also doesn't tell me why you're glad I'm here.”
“Tuck mentioned you might be coming by, and there's somebody I wanted to meet you. She's a little old, to hand off to Roxy and the other running starters, and I thought, or maybe I hoped, that she'd be a better fit for you. She's an exchange student, from Japan. My exchange student, technically, as I'm her sponsor. But it's... different. I'm older enough than her that, while I'm perhaps a good mentor, there's plenty about the college experience that's as foreign to me as this whole country is to her.”
“So, uh, what would I...”
“I just want you to talk to her, maybe show her around, a little. I know you're new, but that will help, because it's all still fresh in your mind. And of course, I can see you've already got your own support system. I'm Linc, by the way,” he waved at both her and Drake. Then he pulled out his phone and checked his messages. “As luck would have it, we were going to get coffee in a bit, so she's on her way, now. Speak of the little Oni,” he said. She was just starting up the path that cut through the field, down by the snowed-over tennis courts. “I don't want to impose, and I know there's, uh, more of a ticking clock than is probably polite, but I'd be happy to buy all of you coffee, for your troubles. Presuming you don't have some place to be.”
“No,” Mikaela said. “Here was the place we had to be.” She suddenly felt a little guilty, and glanced over at Drake. “Though, pretzels, may be a part of our agenda.”
“Very cool. Mayumi, how's your day been going?” She gave him a concerned look, and her eyes dashed from Mikaela, to Drake, and back to Linc. “This is Mikaela. I sort mentioned wanting to introduce you to someone. And this is her friend...”
“Drake,” he said, and gave her a little nod.
Mayumi bit her lip, and forced herself to look up at Linc. “It's been good,” she said softly.
“I should maybe have mentioned that she's a little introverted,” Lincoln said, with a self-deprecating smile.
“Me too, mostly,” Mikaela said. “You feel like getting some coffee?”
Mayumi looked very tentatively at her. “Cocoa?”
“Cocoa would be fine too,” Mikaela said through a smile.
“Oh, here,” Linc went for his wallet, and handed several bills to Mayumi. “It's on me.”
“Thanks,” Mayumi said.
“I'll see you later, and give me a call if you need a ride.” Linc said, and walked back to the field.
“So where are we going for coffee?” Drake asked.
“I guess the kiosk over here's close,” Mikaela said. “Plus they have coffee and cocoa, and aren't afraid to mix them.”
“Sure,” Mayumi said quietly.
“I don't think that's on the way to pretzels, though,” Drake said.
“They have pretzels in the cafeteria,” Mayumi said softly.
“They do?” Drake asked.
“You didn't know that?” Mikaela asked. “You, who build your class schedule around when and where you can get snacks.”
“I didn't go for the meal plan, so I usually just eat at home.”
“Huh,” Mikaela said.
“Did you know they had pretzels in the caf?”
“No. But I've only been here a few days. And I don't fancy myself a Cuisinart.”
“That's how I heard it,” Mayumi said with a smile.
“Oh, come on, you've known me less than five minutes, and you've already turned against me?”
“You just have that effect on women,” Mikaela said. She paused to open the doors into the Franklin Arts Center. It had a small commons area, with tables, couches, and a little barrista. They walked to the coffee kiosk.
“Just a coffee with cocoa and creamer for me,” Mikaela said.
“Iced mocha,” Drake said.
“Cocoa,” Mayumi said. “With whipped cream.” Then she handed him the folded bills from Linc.
They waited for their drinks in awkward silence. After a few moments, Drake took out his phone and amused himself with some Puzzle Quest.
“Got your order,” the barrista said, and set three cups down on the counter.
“Thanks,” Drake said, and took his first. He chose a nearby couch, and sat down. Mikaela sat next to him, and Mayumi pulled a chair from a nearby table.
“We can scoot over,” Mikaela said, pushing Drake to the side.
“This is okay,” Mayumi said.
“So,” Mikaela started. “Baundslow is a long way from Japan. What brought you here?”
“Do you mean, do I belong?”
“I think you belong just fine,” Mikaela said, “abilities, or no.”
“Oh,” she said. “I think I've got some, but...”
“Yeah,” Drake said. “I know how that goes. Mine started showing up senior year, in cross country. We ran through this forest on the backside of the campus. And I started losing tracts of time. Just a few feet here, or maybe a turn there. Nothing that couldn't be explained by a running fugue or by fatigue. Then one day I was running with Iago, and for once he was keeping up.” He stood up. Mayumi barely noticed, because she was trying to take a sip from her cocoa around the swirl of whipped cream. “And then, suddenly, he was gone.” She heard a noise, the kind of rush of air that happens when a door is opened out into the cold. She looked for the source, which was where Drake had been standing, only he wasn't there anymore.
The noise came again, accompanied by a rush of cool air, this time from behind her. “Of course, it wasn't him that disappeared,” Drake said, leaning over her shoulder. The noise came again, then a fourth time, and Drake was standing where he'd been, and dropped down onto the couch.
“How did he take it?” Mayumi asked.
“He's my best friend; still is. Lives in the same apartment up here. Which I guess let's that cat out of the bag. But he was really excited. Because he'd been noticing his own abilities, and that freaked him out. But finding out he wasn't alone, it was a pretty big deal, to him. And I think that's why he accepted it so fast; I was still really confused.”
“I know that feeling,” Mayumi said. “But that's why I'm glad to be here. To belong.”
“This campus is good for that,” Drake said.
“What kind of stuff do you do for fun?” Mikaela asked.
“Stuff,” she said. “I've been watching Attack on Titan with Linc in English, to help me brush up.”
“The anime with the big fat naked dudes?” Mikaela asked.
“I've been trying to get her to watch for forever.”
“Days,” she corrected. “I've only been up here for days. Am I the only one who knows how to tell time up here?” Mayumi gave her a bemused smile. “So you'd recommend it, then?”
She pondered a moment, and took a sip from her cocoa, smudging whipped cream on her nose. “It's bleak,” she said. “But it's unique. You should try it, at least.”
“Okay,” Mikaela relented. “How's tonight work for you two?”
“I'm free,” Drake said.
“Um,” Mayumi stalled.
“Sorry,” Mikaela said. “No pressure. I'll give you my number, and you can call if you want to hang out tonight. Sound good?”
Mayumi smiled. “I'd like that.”
“All right,” Drake said, pushing up off the couch. “You two can stay here, if you want, but I need a pretzel, now.”
Mayumi and Mikaela stood. “We're coming, too,” Mayumi said.
“Yeah,” Mikaela said. “You've been talking about pretzels so damned long, I need on, too.”
“I was thinking we should try out a team-building exercise,” Lincoln said.
“I think sharing pizza is already team-building enough,” Cris said through a too-big bite.
“Maybe,” Linc said. “But now I also have to worry about all of those extra calories from the pizza. So this kills two birds with one stone.”
“Is this why you had us dress in layers?” Sonya asked.
Linc smiled while opening the door outside, picking up a red Frisbee from the top of a filing cabinet. “It is. We're going to be playing a game called ultimate Frisbee. First, rules. You can use your abilities, provided you can control their use. That means no damaging another student or property, and it includes the disc itself- damage to the Frisbee is an automatic point for the opposing team. Once a player has the Frisbee they can't move their legs except to throw;. You can guard opposing players, including making reasonable contact, but there's no tackling. You have to force them to make a bad throw, or an interception.
“Our two captains will be Rox, and Ben. Now we've got an uneven number, so I'll flip a coin.”
“Uh...” Mira said.
“Right. That won't work. Ben, number between one and ten.”
Mira shook her head.
“Okay, Ben, you can have first pick, or you can have four people, second, fourth, sixth and final pick.”
“I'll take an extra member.”
“Okay, Rox you want to go first?”
“Mira,” she said.
He looked across the remaining group, lingering particularly over Irene. Then he looked to Rox and Mira, standing opposite. “Rui.”
“And of course,” Linc said, “you get Irene, too.”
Ben flushed, realizing too late that a part of Linc's design had been to guarantee that no one had to be picked last. “Rox, do you want to receive or kick off?”
“We'll take possession to start,” she said.
“Huddle up and plan your strategy.”
Ben's team huddled around him. “I'm beginning to think I chose poorly,” he said. “Between Rox and Cris, they've got luck and religion on their side.”
“But we've got numbers,” Sonya said confidently.
“We'll run a one to one defense, except Irene. You'll stay in the back field; you're the safety net, if somebody manages to break through, you pick them up. Anybody got preferences for who they want to guard?”
“I want Roxy,” Sonya said.
“Be careful with her,” Ben said. “That probability ability of hers can be a real pain.”
“I can handle her,” she replied.
“And you better take Mira,” Rui said to Ben. “I don't think I'm tall enough to cover her. Which means I've got Cris.”
“Sounds good to me. Irene, you think you can handle he kick-off from the back field?”
She pondered a moment, then shook her head. “No, um, you do it.”
“Okay. Everybody, ignore the Frisbee. Your goal is to make it to the person you're defending against.”
They lined up on the end of the field opposite Rox's team. “You ready?” he called to her.
“Bring it,” she bellowed back.
Ben took a few big steps then loosed the Frisbee. It reminded him of learning how to throw a knife from his brother back on the reservation, and for a moment he was homesick.
Rox barely had to movie, the Frisbee seemed to come directly to her. Ben couldn't be sure if he'd spaced and thrown it to her, or if her powers were just that pervasive. He hooked to the side to cover Mira, but she was still too far down field, and caught a throw from Rox without incident.
He nearly caught a throw from Mira, but it sailed over his head to Cris. “Crap,” Sonya said from downfield. “I don't got her.”
“Irene?” Ben bellowed. But Rox was already standing further up field with the Frisbee. Irene and Sonya met to guard her, only for her to loose the Frisbee. It floated over Cris and Rui, who dove for the interception. But it was still too high, and curved its path, landing deftly in Mira's fingers.
She passed to Cris, who was standing in the goal area, open. Rui caught up to him a half-second too late.
“Losers walk,” Rox said, walking past him.
“I hate probabilities,” Ben muttered. “But we've got this. Advantage always goes to the offense, and we've got an extra player. Just take your time with your throws.”
They turned around, to face the opposing team. Cris threw the Frisbee, and Ben caught it. “Rui, go long.” He took off down field. Mira planted in front of him, either to slow him down or force him to lose momentum going around. He dispersed his atoms into a cloud, sending them shattering outward in a mini explosion, and recombined into a solid on the opposite side of her.
“The throw!” Ben yelled, and Rui glanced up. He couldn't be sure if the throw was long, or if Mira had managed to slow him, but it was going to go over his head. He wouldn't be able to dive to catch it, even.
Without thinking he found himself burning through the air. He was a plasma, using the energy of it to fly. It gave him enough of a speed boost he was going to reach the Frisbee. He realized at the last second that if he caught it while on fire, he'd scorch the Frisbee and give the other team a point, and extinguished his hands.
“Man to man,” Rox said. “He's got to throw.” Rox and her team were all over their partners.
“Do I?” Rui asked. He was still propelled on plasma, and listing towards the goal.
Rox put one foot on Ben's knee, then the other on his hip, and finally leapt of his shoulder. She reached out to Rui's ankle, which was still on fire. He realized she was going to grab onto him- and hurt herself, so he extinguished the flame on his ankle.
She latched on, and between her and not having his feet, he lost balance, and tumbled towards the field. They landed in a pile.
“Everybody okay?” Linc asked, running up to them.
“Not a scratch,” Rox said, standing.
“Me, too,” Rui said, pushing off the ground.
“That was some unnecessary roughness,” Sonya complained.
“I'd say it was reasonable contact given what you were up to, Rui,” Linc said. “But just this once, I'll allow it. And look where you fell.”
Rui checked the lines on the field. “Goal?”
“And losers walk,” Ben said.
Rox and her team started down the field.
Ben signaled for his team to come in close. “That was a lucky break. We need to shut them down.”
“I might have an idea,” Sonya said. “I could drop mines along this side. If we aren't subtle about it, they'll know there are mines there, so they'll avoid that half of the field. It concentrates them here, where our numbers will be an even more controlling factor.”
“How do they work, exactly?” Ben asked.
“Magic?” she asked. “Okay, near as I can figure, they're essentially bubbles around a select quantity of air and antimatter, keeping the two separate for a set time. When the time's up, they combine, explosively.”
“Near as you can figure?” Rui asked.
“Okay, near as my physics professor could figure.” She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Can you make it more style than substance- make it look scarier than it is?”
“I can make the biggest ones be in the front, and go off before they get there. That'd probably do the trick. And I'll need that side of the field, so I can keep peppering the ground with them; I can only do a few dozen at a time.”
“Sounds good. And Rui, you take Roxy this time. Irene take Cris. And everybody, be aware. If you're close enough to lend a hand without losing your partner, go for it. Let's do this.”
Ben threw the Frisbee, deliberately arcing it towards Mira. “Cue the fireworks,” he said to Sonya. Mines began popping loudly, shooting sparks and colorful fire into the air.
“What the hell?” asked Mira.
“Area denial,” Rox said. “They're trying to force us through a funnel.” She ran towards Sonya. Mira threw the Frisbee towards her, and Rox turned at the perfect moment to catch it. “I'll see you in the end zone,” she said, as Cris and Mira ran past.
“Two to a person,” Ben said. “We've got this.”
Rox through the disc straight ahead, into the minefield, then chased after it on foot.
“God,” Sonya said, stopping in her tracks. The mines continued to go off around Rox as she ran. She leapt, landed, and serpentined, and even rolled to the side as mines burst all around her. One sent the Frisbee spinning precariously into the air. Rox jumped straight up, and knocked the edge of the Frisbee, so it wobbled towards the end zone. Mira was there to catch it, and Cristobal caught her when she exited.
Linc was on her heels. “That was crazy,” he said, winded by his run up the field.
“I didn't think she'd run through the mines,” Sonya said.
“You didn't think, full stop,” he said. “It isn't on the rest of the world to avoid the problems you create. But, I also think making reasonable judgment calls is part of having our kind of power. I think this went too far, but I also think Rox used that. And even managed to get a free point out of it.”
“Free point?” Sonya mouthed.
Linc held out his hands for the Frisbee, and Mira tossed it to him. It was charred on one side, where a mine damaged it. “So that play was worth two points, not one.”
“But it was still an unnecessary risk,” he said, turning towards Rox.
“I have luck on my side,” she said. “And besides, I had Cris on my team, too.”
“I'm not a get out of third degree burns free card,” Cris protested.
“Not just that,” she corrected. “You're also a hell of a catcher.”
“I'm pretty sure he prefers to pitch,” Ben said.
“Yeah, who doesn't?” Rox asked. “And I shouldn't be able to hear you; you're supposed to be walking.”
“This is really good,” Demi said.
“It is,” Mikaela said, “just don't tell Drake that, or you'll never hear the end of it.”
“He loves food, but more than that, he loves to talk about food. Compare it.”
“He doesn't look the type.”
“That's because he also runs. If he wasn't a runner he'd be like a billion pounds by now, and short as he is, he'd look like a dime.” Demi laughed.
“Shit, I think I derailed.”
“You did. But I was kind of happy to have the out, really. I hate talking about Tucker. It's draining. I want to be done, the whole thing to be over. I don't even think I'd want her back,” Mikaela frowned, “or him. And it's not because the trans thing is a deal breaker. I've dated men, and women, and quite a few of them weren't wholly cis.”
“Cis?” Demi asked, around a mouthful of pizza.
“Cisgendered. It's the opposite of trans; it's people whose gender identity matches their sex. I'm one of the last people to care about traditional gender roles. But even if he walked through that door, not here to get a pizza, but because he tracked me down because he realizes he made a mistake, and apologized and... he left me. I'd never trust that wouldn't happen again. Couldn't. There's no going back.
“But when he left, he clawed his way out of my chest like an Alien zygote; I just want not to have a gaping hole in my chest anymore, and that emotional wound is tied up in my feelings for him. I think. It's tough to know anything, the way I feel. I'm just... I'm not myself. And that's all I really want anymore; I just don't know how I get back to being me.”
“Then why'd you follow him up here?”
“I didn't, exactly,” Mikaela said. “But we were together during summer classes. I was one class behind him, before I could finish my AA. And we planned to both go here together, did the application together and everything. Even drove up together to check out the campus. But at the end of the summer he broke up with me. I had friends here; it was always my plan to go to school here. And it felt like I could either dash my plans, because of him, or follow through, in spite of him.”
Demi winced. “And either way, the decision ends up tied up around him. I've been there, with my mom. For a while, everything I did was either because of or in spite of her. And it just took time and distance to not have her be such a controlling factor in my life.”
Mikaela shifted in her seat, and at the crinkle of paper in her pocket, removed Tucker's flier.
“Tucker's kind of a jerk,” Demi said. “He was wrong about most things, except that program. I participated, last semester. It's cool. And Linc's a really good influence.”
“Lincoln Martens. He was recruited directly out of special forces. He was some kind of war hero; he doesn't like to talk about the specifics, and I don't know, I guess I wanted to respect his privacy, so I never looked into it. But mentoring younger people with abilities... I grew up alone. Like really alone. For most of my life I only had my mother... and she more or less blamed me for Dad leaving, so I wouldn't say I really had any of her but resentment. But working with other kids, both giving and just hearing other people's stories, it made me feel not so alone, and connected me with our community. I don't know that I ever felt a sense of community, except when I was working- living on the streets.”
“You were homeless?” Mikaela asked. “Sorry, I'm just...”
“Don't be. I brought it up. I ran away from home. Things just got, my mom got a new boyfriend. At first he was just abusive to her, but then he turned it to me. And she didn't believe me, so she couldn't protect me; wouldn't. So I ran away, outside of the city, outside of the state. My abilities hadn't come in, or I might have been able to protect the both of us-” She glanced across the table, and accidentally caught sight of the salt shaker. Electricity arced from her fingers, and shattered it, sending a spray of salt across the table. “Shit,” Demi said, reaching across the table for the shattered shaker.
The waitress was suddenly standing over them. “It's okay, dear,” the waitress said. “Dean Kean's doing the lord's work.” She held out her hand, and moved her fingers around. The shaker reassembled itself, with about three quarters of the salt back inside it. “Keep at it,” she said. “You'll get it under control.” The waitress smiled at them, then scurried off to another of her tables.
“So I guess I know what you can do,” Mikaela said with a grin.
“Yeah. I break things.”
“With electricity. From your fingertips.”
“I can also use electricity to make myself strong.”
“You're Thor, but a lady.”
“Thor can be a lady. Thor is more of a title, like President. There's been a lady Thor in the comics.”
“You can't brag to me about your graphic novel collection one evening, then try to call me a nerd for knowing comics the next day.”
“I get very 'Nerd Pride' when I'm drinking.”
“I know. Militantly, almost. You wanted to find a jock to give a swirly to, on principal.”
“You ever get a swirly?” Mikaela asked.
“No. But I've been picked on, plenty.”
“Yeah. I didn't see much of that, growing up. But the little parts I did... I hated. I always found myself befriending people who were on that bottom social rung. But I think we derailed. You were underaged, when you ran away, so I imagine there wasn't a lot of work.”
“No. I grew up in the midwest. All of the measures that were designed to keep undocumented immigrants out of the workforce made it harder for me to find work, harder still to find a job that wasn't looking to exploit its workers. So I spent a while being homeless, staying with friends- people I met.” Rox and Linc walked through the front glass doors of the parlor. “Speak of the devil,” Demi said. Mikaela watched them walk to the counter, where he paid for an already boxed pizza.
“Is that normal?” Mikaela asked.
“Depends what you mean. It's innocent enough. He works with the satellite kids, buys them lunch as often as not.”
“Okay,” she replied.
“You sound skeptical.”
“Yeah. I had a choir teacher like that. Real friendly, real nice. Ended up on the sex offenders list.”
“Yeah, so I guess I'm extra dubious about adult men spending time with teenaged women.”
“Makes sense, though. And there is a difference between caution and being too zealous. And especially where men and sex concerned, it usually pays to be cautious.”