-Whateley Academy, 2016.-
I knew that it was a mistake. A mistake in a long series of mistakes. But staying in jail, ruining my future, just for that... just for her? It just wasn't an option. But knowing she was here, that she was living it up in the luxury hotel cottage while I was stuck in this hole, that she was probably only able to afford it off the few patents I could actually qualify for and had been taken from me....
It was like a splinter in my eye; something I could live through, but constantly irritating and always noticeable.
It beat jail, though. Not being able to make things when the ideas came to me, the tight controls and regimented day, the other prisoners – yes, it beat jail. Even with the mandatory early morning sessions; six in the morning was way too early to have to go see a psychologist.
I showered and dressed, trying my best to work around the ankle bracelet; it had some space so as not to give me skin problems, but it was still annoying to work around, and it banged against everything. The showers were nearly empty at this hour, everyone else was able to sleep. I had to do this every morning until further notice.
It was still better than jail. I just had to keep reminding myself of that.
When the man had come offering me a way out of the cell, a way to have a future again, I'd been ecstatic. Even with the thought of owing him in return; after all he'd only asked for what I'd already proven I could give. Finally my talents were being recognized, and given the credit they deserved! Or so I thought.
I didn't realize that agreeing meant I'd be shipped across the country and jailed in a school for misfits and beautiful people. The beautiful people were the worst – they KNEW they were beautiful, unlike Luke, and they worked it for all they were worth. They slammed the idea in other people's faces like a punch: 'I'm gorgeous and so I'm better than you'. I'd actually seen a few boys, scum the lot of them, that had made barking noises as a boy with dog ears had walked by. I'd almost stopped, but I couldn't afford to get into any trouble; one strike and it was back to jail.
The girls were even worse than that, acting like clumsy queens, wielding influence and scheming against each other with all the subtlety of a rampaging elephant. 'hey, I'm pretty, can you do this for me?' 'Hey, I'm pretty, can you do that for me?' It was sickening.
The really sickening thing was I could see myself in it.
Exactly fifteen minutes later, and it was time to dress. Baggy pants to hide my ankle jewelry today, I didn't feel like getting into another high profile shouting match with the idiots who thought themselves heroes. How could they be heroes, letting something like that walk around free on campus? It was insulting; sure, I was a criminal according to the state of California, and I had broken the law, but I was paying for my crime and wasn't that bad.
A baggy sweater to match the pants - it was cold here compared to California - and it was back to my room for socks and shoes.
My roommate wasn't up, because who would be up willingly at this hour?
Socks, shoes, a brush through my hair a few times. No makeup, because what would be the point here?
The campus was quiet. I walked along, my hand on my self defense option. I wasn't actually allowed to carry anything that could be a weapon, but this school was dangerous; it was better to beg forgiveness than end up in traction at Doyle.
Of course it didn't look like a weapon, I wasn't stupid. My fallback option wouldn't hurt anyone, but I wasn't the runner Luke was, if someone was serious I wouldn't be able to get away.
I hit the vending machines on the way out; energy drinks were rather on the disgusting side, but I needed the pick me up and they were growing on me. To satisfy my inner health nut, a granola bar would do. I didn't often go to the cafeteria for meals, I was usually working when I wasn't in class; but unlike exemplars I didn't need that much to keep going. I could stand to lose some weight anyway.
I saw a few people up and about, either victims of very late nights (I nodded politely to a guy I recognized from the labs) or the crazy early risers. And then as if God was mocking me, I saw her. Jogging along without a care in the world, looking better in her designer jogging suit than she had any right to, a smile on her face and her stupid ears flopping around.
Just like that, I was back where I hoped never to be again; back in Hell, back in California.
They were kissing! Luke, my perfect boyfriend, the guy so sweet it took him years just to ask me out, was cheating on me behind my back with that horrible backstabbing slut. It was good I couldn't see through the tears; my feet knew where I wanted to be anyway. Away, as far away from here as possible. Maybe they would lead me to a nice hole to fall into.
I wanted to yell. I wanted to make her bleed; to hurt. Instead I ran.
I don't know why I ducked into the gym teacher's office; the teacher was absent and the office dark, but the door was unlocked. I don't know why I ducked down out of sight as Luke rushed past on his way to the exit door.
Why was he there? Why was he following me at all? To apologize, or to rub it in and make things worse? Well I couldn't - I just couldn't accept an apology regardless of which it was. Not right now. I moved as soon as he was done, back into the now empty gym.
That was good, I didn't want to deal with Amy either, yet. I just wanted to leave. My phone was in my hand... did I dare call Mom? She was already half convinced I wasn't her daughter anymore somehow, and I just didn't want to deal with that right now either. My life was full of things I didn't want to deal with, heartbreaks in human form. Too many.
The twins were there; my heart ratcheted up again. They were friends, my only real friends now that my social standing had been a casualty of my genes, but they were my friends by way of Luke. What would they say about this? Did I want to know?
It didn't matter what I wanted, they were going to tell me anyway.
"I don't know," Jeff said to his sister, eying me.
"He totally kissed her. I saw tongue!" Jane insisted before following her brother's gaze. Then she went still.
That was enough; if she saw it, and said that when she didn't know I was there - then it must be true. Luke really had been cheating on me. He had probably been cheating on me this entire time, for months, laughing about it behind my back.
"Hey Jamie, wait!"
I was past them already; they couldn't see my tears, and I didn't want them to hear my sobs. It was bad enough everyone else was going to. Feet pounded after me, but didn't catch me, and once I was outside the front doors they stopped. It was a wonder I didn't run into someone, the late day sun had me blind.
But it was late; almost everyone was home or going there; the perfect time to cheat on mutant girlfriends you didn't love anymore.
No, enough wallowing. He wouldn't get away with this - Luke would know what he'd done, what this felt like. He would know how ir felt to love someone and have them make out with other people right in front of him. Yes, that was what I had to do.
I pulled out my phone and dialed, but didn't stop walking. No, it wouldn't do for Luke to find me before I was ready. A good thing I had this new phone preset.
"Mom, I need a ride."
She took a deep breath, and preceded to tell me she was busy. She hemmed. She hawed. And I was already sick of it.
"Now Mom. No excuses, just come get me. I need to go to the hardware store."
She'd do it - if she knew what was good for her. I'm sure she didn't want a repeat of last time.
Her car pulled up beside me less than five minutes later, slowing to match my pace. I got in the back; there was no time for the front.
"No. We need to go, and we need to go now. I need parts." There was no sense in telling my mother exactly what I needed, since she wouldn't know what they were anyway.
My Mom didn't waste time trying to argue with me again, which was good; even she was able to tell I wasn't in the mood. Even better, she already knew where we were going; the hardware store. I only needed a few electronics, and those could be dealt with by taking apart a few cell phones others had thrown away for recycling when upgrading. I needed a collector plate, a small lens, a sample container for the DNA....
The guy behind the counter knew me by sight: "Hey Jamie, how are you today?"
I didn't recognize him - I knew his face, but the name eluded me. S something? "Hello, and not good."
He didn't notice me covering, his face morphing into concern; I couldn't help but wonder if it was genuine. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing a shopping list of parts won't cure." I told him and handed the list I'd made over.
Well I'd brightened up his day, if the way his face lit up was any indication. Glad to know my pain was good for something. "Sure thing! Help yourself... I'll work at one end, you work at the other."
More quickly than I would have given him credit for considering his size, the old guy gathered half my list. He was waiting for me when I next looked up. Right, it wouldn't do to get lost in the ideas now, even if I could come up with an even better plan given time; I didn't want to give Luke the time to run away, or use that silver tongue of his to actually talk.
Still, I took the time to go over the man's offerings, since one bad part could ruin everything....
"Alright, this all looks good. What do we owe you?"
Mom dug her credit card out at the not to subtle hint; I had her trained well. I bagged everything up.
I wanted to go back to the car, but I was well trained as Mom was, I had to watch her; she'd tried to get me in trouble before, even going so far as trying to "warn" people about me. I was just fine, thank you very much. The MCO was already sniffing around, they didn't need any more of an excuse.
At last Mom traded her 'pleasantries' and headed to the door. I followed her out and was finally free to pull the mini-tool kit out of my back pocket and start in; the sooner I got it done the sooner I could go look for my wayward boyfriend.
"Home, Mom. Time to go home."
"...fine, honey," Mom agreed. She sounded afraid. Good - it was better than the alternative.
I managed to get the basic frame built by the time Mom pulled into our driveway. I threw the parts back in the bag and got out, a step behind her. I had to wait and tap my foot on purpose, while Mom fumbled her key in the lock of our door and opened it up. Then finally I was inside and the real work could begin. But first, I locked the door.
First came the sample, and I had just the one in mind; a well known retired hero who just could not keep away from the scandal rags; she sent me her D.N.A. for my research. I think she wanted a cure for her well known condition, but she hadn't actually said. Still, she certainly wouldn't mind a little constructive chastisement for a two timing jackass. I wouldn't even need the entire sample, since I'd already typed and cultured it.
After the sample case was constructed, I needed the microchip and program to control what the device did. I had this thing mostly constructed already, but my simple program was going to need some changes, since it was set to attempt to edit and not the reverse. Perhaps the reverse would work better, if I had the right sample? A thought and experiment for another day.
The focusing lens came next, despite the name it was more to catch the signal from my computer that controlled the process; there was no way I could pack the full firepower this device needed on it, and wires were for suckers. Most of the power and processing power the device used actually came from my pc and was broadcast to the hand-held unit. I wasn't too sure the hand-held unit would survive the rigors of use, but I just didn't have the funding for a full unit, even with my kickstarter, that no one must ever know about.
All I really needed was proof of concept though, and this would do well enough.
I finished just in time it seemed; raised voices were coming up from downstairs. It was likely my Mom had decided to warn my target; I'd have to get even with her for that later.
I could see them from the top of the stairs; the view to the front door was largely unobstructed. I could see him.
Part of me longed to fling myself into his arms, to cry on his shoulder and demand an explanation; he just looked so earnest down there in his own sorrow, even though it had to be a lie. It was fine - we could make up later, after he understood. After I’d gotten even.
“Luke honey, could you come up here please?”
He started up despite the looks my parents were giving him, then paused as he got a better look at me; a prey animal, suddenly wary.
It didn’t matter, he was on the staircase, with no where to go; I raised the handheld unit and fired.
He dodged it by falling backward and then rolling out of sight toward the kitchen!
He scrambled up as I was going down the stairs a little more carefully myself (never let it be said that he didn’t have a hard head to match that beautiful face) and out the still open door; a quick lucky bob of his head and he dodged my second shot.
Infuriating! He needed to just take his medicine! “Stop running, Luke. Darling.”
I should have waited until he was all the way up the stairs; at this rate he may get away!
A third shot; his feet slid out from under him in the grass and it sailed over his head, dissipating harmlessly a few feet beyond him in a colorful display of cohesion lost. No man should be this lucky!
“Hold still! It’ll be painless!”
Another shot dodged as he rounded our car; the bolt discolored the paint a little; hm, I wonder why it did that? It shouldn’t affect… no, focus!
This time I waited, drawing better aim. He was crouched, one foot splayed out wide, and this time I knew where he was going. Our eyes met. I realized he’d been talking; shouting. I hadn’t heard a word. No, there would be time enough for apologies later. I pulled the trigger.
He was on fire.
I had pulled the trigger, and my device had set Luke on fire. He was writhing on the grass, green and blue flames rising from him. It wasn’t supposed to do that! There was nothing in the calculations that hinted at flames, especially odd flames!
My hands were on fire; Rolling Luke on the grass wasn’t helping. My father pushed me out of the way and wrapped him in a blanket, rolling him around again once he was covered.
Wisps of smoke from my hands and from the blanket as the fire went out. Sirens, in the distance, growing louder.
Masking that ragged, horridly loud and somehow wet breathing.
An ambulance, stopping in our driveway, the EMT’s jumping out and rushing to Luke’s side. They checked his vital signs, ran an IV, and kept him in the blanket, moving him to the gurney. He didn’t make a sound through it all, except the breathing. He was still breathing.
More sirens. Another ambulance, just as the first rushed away, taking Luke with them. The EMT that jumped out stood over me, and said something. Was he going to take me to where Luke was going?
“Can you stand, Ma’am? I’d like to take a look at your hands.”
Oh, right. I was on the ground, lying in the mud. My hands hurt. He was going to help me. I stood up.
More sirens, growing louder.
The EMT held an arm and smeared something on my right hand.
Two police cars stopped next to the driveway, blocking us all in. That was inconsiderate of them; how would we get to the hospital if they were in the way?
One of the officers – I think I knew him, but couldn’t remember his name – walked over, his hand on his gun. He said something.
His partner went over to my parents, who were hugging each other in the doorway of our house, and they started talking. Two other officers were walking around, and all their hands were resting on their guns.
Then the cop in front of me spoke again. “Miss, can you tell me what happened here?”
“I shot him.”
“Excuse me, Miss?” The cop said, moving slightly, taking a step back. One of the cops wandering the yard came close, something I couldn’t see in his hand.
The words came again. “I shot him, and he lit on fire.”
“Alright ma’am, what did you shoot him with?”
Small words. I had to use small words that didn’t really mean the same thing, and just come as close as I could, or normal people wouldn’t understand me. I knew that.
“My body interface template editor; the hand-held unit, anyway. It’s not supposed to do that, you know.”
“And where is this… editor now Ma’am?”
“Over there, somewhere. I’m not really sure.” I pointed, and the EMT took that arm, and began smearing something on the hand attached to it. My hand.
“It’s not supposed to do that, you know.”
“Do what, ma’am?”
“Light people on fire. How could it do such a thing?”
The cop turned to his friend. “I wouldn’t know, ma’am.”
It was an important question. “Well, when you find it, ask it. I want to know.”
The officer wandering the yard pulled a glove on, and picked up the hand-held; it looked none the worse for wear. He held it with his thumb and forefinger, by the very end of the grip, as if the unit were a particularly loathsome bug or something. Another officer – when had he gotten here – held up a bag and the wandering officer dropped the hand-held into it.
The officer and the EMT were talking, but the words didn’t mean anything.
The EMT let go of my hands, and the officer nearest me said words that made even less sense than before. “Ma’am, you’re under arrest.”
I looked up to see two of the officers had drawn their guns, and both were pointed at me. The one nearest me wrenched my arm around; I felt the tightening of cuffs on first one hand, and then the other.
This… this was all wrong. Luke was hurt! I had to get to him, to be there for him! I could fix this, I know it!
The officer kicked one of my feet out, supporting me as I almost fell. He patted me down while the other officers looked on, guns still drawn.
I could have told them that; I didn’t have so much as a screwdriver on me; everything had been left upstairs. I would need all of my tools to fix this, but I was glad they weren’t here to take right now.
My hands began to hurt as the officer marched me to his car by an elbow. He opened the door and shoved me inside.
They needed to take me to the hospital – to Luke. I didn’t care what they did to me after.
My nails were in palms again; I’d have to use the skin knitter. The skin knitter I’d made first thing, after being booked and thrown in a cell awaiting bond. The device made to make sure Luke healed quickly with no scars. The police wouldn’t let me use it on him, of course; they said it was because there was nothing physically wrong with his skin by the time it was ready.
I knew better.
At least they hadn’t printed me that first night, and had let me use the knitter on myself. The device was a qualified success, worth the minor drawbacks, but it wasn’t something just anyone could use and so worth no money.
The jogger had everything worthwhile I made that could be reproduced; it was all in her name now, thanks to the civil courts of the so-called great state of California. I was guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, and had a jail sentence and new jewelry; that bitch was guilty of murder, and could walk around free making money off my work.
But it was fine, deep breaths, deep breaths. She would get hers, eventually. Such people always did, it was a law of the universe. Karma was more an immutable law of the universe than gravity or inertia. I’d be there to see it happen, but for now I had to play ball, and that meant making my appointment.
The building was lit, as no one coming here had any decency for the hour, but the interior was a little confusing. I had been here before but I almost took two wrong turns on my way to the office.
My court ordered Whateley Academy psychologist, whose name I couldn’t bother to remember, had a fake smile plastered on her vapid face as I entered.
“Jamie, good. You’re right on time. Did you sleep well?”
She already knew the answer to that question, of course. “No, but that’s normal, isn’t it?”
She shrugged and held her perfectly manicured hands up. “Who is to say what normal is? Certainly not me.”
This idiot. This total airheaded blonde. “Isn’t that your job?”
Her smile changed to something more genuine. “Not even remotely. You’ve seen where I work – does normal even come close to describing it?”
Well I had to concede that point at least. “No.”
“Likewise, your situation is not unique, but hardly normal, wouldn’t you say? Won’t you take a seat?”
I took one. As much as I hated this, I had to play along. “I would say it’s not normal, if you weren’t just asking to make noise.”
“The question was not rhetorical,” The idiot replied, taking her own chair. “Speaking of your situation, are you willing to talk about it now?”
“What is there to talk about? I’m a criminal, sent to a school that doesn’t actually exist and that will send me back to jail if I screw up. I can’t go anywhere or do anything but go to class. I’m watched every second of the day and night, even when I sleep, and all my tech is taken apart, no matter how harmless it is. I made a light bulb for my lamp the other day. A simple light bulb, and it was confiscated! How do you even weaponize a light bulb?!?”
Oh, how I hated this woman. Never more so than now, with that secretive, oh-so-knowing smile framed on her face.
“Again, you might be surprised. But it was cleared, wasn’t it? How many is that? Fourteen devices cleared since your conviction?”
“Don’t insult us both, please. You know how many it was, though I am surprised you aren’t using a cheat-sheet this time.”
The first time I had been forced to see this woman she had constantly referred to my file, probably as a tactic to mess with my head.
“Fair enough. Not all of us have exceptional memory, and I was not that lucky.”
Well that made two of us. My memory was better, but I had to work at it; I wasn’t anything like even the simplest exemplar in this school. The good news was, dear Miss forgettable did not know about device number fifteen, which had made short work of some security camera signals before self-destructing in a quiet but complete manner. For all the measures the adults here took, it really was child’s play, pun intended since they thought me such, to circumvent everything.
I knew she suspected, everyone did. But as long as there was no proof and whatever was recovered didn’t look anything like my normal work, the powers that be couldn’t do anything. It was nice to have friends again.
“So, we’re getting far afield here. Anything to discuss with me? We still have almost an hour; it would be a shame to spend it in silence, staring at each other.”
Speak for yourself. I could do it with ease, since it beat any and all vapid mouthings you could utter.
But maybe it was time to throw her a bone – or a decoy. “Well, we could talk friends, I suppose. It’s very hard to find friends when you’re a convicted criminal. Any advice there?”
“Sure. Just be yourself, and be patient.”
Of course. My day was barely started, and already it was complete. What a load of unicorns and rainbows.
“Well, I’m hardly going to be anyone else,” I told her. “and I’m hardly patient, but I’ll see what I can do.”
I really wouldn’t.
We 'chatted' some more, inane small talk to pass the time. She asked about some of my inventions, and I told her what she could understand about how they worked. Her eyes glazed a few times, and some of her nods were wooden, but it ate up the remaining time in a way that wasn't dangerous for me.
"Alright, we're out of time."
Finally. "Great. See you next week."
"Jamie," of course she calls my name as I open the door. I turn to listen to her parting shot. "My door is open any time; if you ever need to talk, please drop by."
I had to do it. I had to knock that smile off her face. "Any time? Even now, with another appointment waiting?"
She didn't even hesitate, but her smile did slip a little. "Sure, do you have something to discuss?"
I gave her a grin as fake as her own. "No, I just wanted to ask. Thanks, and see you next week."
My life was defined by little victories.
My first class was math, which was a decent way to start the day. The teacher was ok at least, and Sharon shared the class with me. She wasn't one of those 'profess undying loyalty' types that didn't actually mean it; instead her friendship was based more on what I could do for her, which weirdly meant she was more trustworthy. There was probably a word for that sort of thing somewhere, but I couldn't be bothered with to learn it.
I sat down next to my new friend, and she actually seemed happy to see me. "Good morning Jamie."
"Good morning Sharon. Get your homework done today?"
"For once. How about you?"
"For once. Not that security and the administration helped."
Sharon glanced around without moving her head, which was a neat trick and one that I should learn, before whispering. "Well, you did do it."
"I've no idea what you're talking about," I whispered back. "Drone technology isn't my thing."
"And neither is jamming, right?" Sharon mock asked.
"Absolutely. I couldn't build that sort of thing if I tried. I'm an absolute angel."
A new voice broke in. "That's great. Can you absolute angels move please? I need to get to my seat."
I looked up and into the clear blue eyes of a guy so handsome that he almost compared to Luke, in a less swarthy way. I leaned back and ducked down before my face heated up, but his eyes barely met mine before roving on. It was like I barely existed.
Because of course I did; even Sharon was better looking than I was, and when she leaned back, his eyes followed.
He did turn to face her though as he walked through, which allowed me to see his rather gloriously firm backside. The small moments.
Then the teacher walked in and we all settled quickly to pay attention, because no one wanted to be a repeat example of what happened last time.
I focused on taking notes, combined with the record app on my phone. The app would be enough normally, but I wanted to appear studious, in control, and doing something. I did not want to get caught up designing something again and then have to stop halfway, because that would irritate me.
The note taking helped me stay awake, since the teacher's droning voice was almost a power with how effective it was, and I hadn't had the most restful night.
The bell rang, and I waited. In a school of mutants, it was best to let those who could snap you in half on accident to go first, and remove the chance for those accidents to occur. Sharon rolled her eyes next to me, but waited with me.
It wasn't necessary, but it was appreciated.
"You shouldn't worry," Sharon said once the room cleared and I got up. "No one knows who you are, or cares."
"Some do - I've had death threats already. The latest claims I'm some sort of traitor to the mutant cause or something."
"What? How do they figure that? How would anyone figure that?"
I shrugged. "Heck if I know; Whoever it was didn't explain it, they just wrote a note."
Sharon's eyes narrowed. "Must be some Evolution Rocks chump or something. You still have the note?"
I made sure the hall was as clear as possible before venturing into them. "No, security does. But I have a digital copy."
"A shame, the copy won't be as useful as the original for tracking down the culprit."
That offhand comment stopped me. "You want to track the guy down?"
Sharon didn't even hesitate, her own eyes scanning the halls the way mine were now. "Why wouldn't I? Someone threatened you. At the very least we should find and talk to them. Why do you think it's a guy, by the way?"
"Most people who write death threats are guys, statistically."
"Could it be... her?"
There was no need to ask who she meant. "Nah, not her style. She's more the type to cry 'o woe is me, I'm getting attacked!' than anything else. You know, try to turn people against me."
"R-right. So, not her. One of her new friends, maybe?"
I didn't think so. "It could be, and we can look at them, but I don't think that's likely." The easiest thing for people to do would be to simply report me to security, much like what had happened before. But this felt more like an actual threat, which I doubted anyone on the right side of campus authority would use.
"Well, I got to go to my next class," Sharon apologized. "You be careful, okay? I'll text Pete and he can meet you."
I was a little touched. Pete was pretty tough, or so he kept telling us; I should be fine with him. "Thanks, and I will. I can at least tell which cameras are working and when."
I wasn't the only one who could jam the security systems here. I'm sure the adults worked very hard in whatever boomer way they had, but it wasn't even a difficult process; if someone knew Some of the sites weren't even blocked from the school grounds, which I found confusing.
Some of the teachers knew their stuff, but why was the administration so incompetent? It boggled the mind.
"Hey J, what's this I hear about threats?"
Pete sidled up to me just before we entered my next class, which was english. He was small and dark haired, but otherwise pretty hot. Built like a runner or gymnast, with lean muscle, he was usually hard to see coming. but I'd been expecting him, so he didn't get the startlement he normally went for.
"Just the usual, here, I'll send it over." I reached the desk I liked for this class (in the back for this one) and sent the copy of the letter again. Pete looked it over and lifted an eyebrow.
"Right. Security knows I assume, but you aren't going to be left alone today."
I managed to keep my face clear, so he wouldn't know. Touched by the gesture or not, I'd been betrayed by friends before; I wasn't going to count on him, or anyone else.
Pete at least did his homework. That was something.
The English teacher tried, she really did. But knowing Shakespeare in the modern era was about as useful as knowing astrology. I still went through the motions, setting my phone and notebook up; it wouldn't do to appear as anything less than a model student, or as close as I can manage.
We had been on Shakespeare in California too. It hadn't been useful there, either.
At least my latest paper had an A on it. A low A, but I wasn't complaining. I filed that one away with the new reading assignment and quiz, and waited for the classroom to clear.
"Labs are next, aren't they?" Pete asked, even though he knew the answer, and knew I knew he knew. Heh.
"Well, I've got basic martial arts, so I can't come with you. But rest assured, I won't be made a liar just yet, you'll be watched."
That didn't sound ominous at all. "By who?"
"I'll let him decide if he's going to tell you. I can tell you it's a guy who owes me a favor or two, and he's very shy." Pete was already texting on his phone, all but ignoring me.
The urge to stage something just to see if anyone came to my defense rose. But it was best not to rock the boat. Maybe. It was pretty clear that either Pete or his friend didn't want me to know who he was. "Fine."
"Don't worry my princess, if you don't know who it is, neither will your stalker. Come on, I'll walk you down there."
I marched. "So you don't trust my acting skills?"
Pete shook his head. "Not in the least."
That was probably fair. We found the nearest tunnel entrance and headed in among the less fortunate students. I eased my hand closer to my main holdout; many of the less human looking here ar the school belonged to Evolution Rocks, and I was a rather polarizing figure to that organization. One of the members of that club was the most likely candidate to send the note.
Nevertheless, we reached the labs safely, and I managed to get to my own workbench and tools alone without incident.
There was a note on my desk; this one wasn't comprised of letters ripped from magazines. Instead, it had perfect calligraphy from an obviously old-fashioned pen.
"Build a handheld DNA scanner and sequencer." It said. The signature was a letter: a stylized M.
That was how I knew it was from my new boss. The one responsible for me being free at all. The devil that sent me to this hell.
The cell was cold, but modern, as far as cells go. That's what my cell neighbor said anyway. The toilet was metal and bolted to the floor with bolts that were covered, so that no matter what type of tool one could make or steal, you couldn't loosen it. The walls were concrete and painted, so that any attempt to chip a way out would be immediately noticed. The sink was also steel and bolted, and the pipes to the plumbing weren't exposed, instead there was a steel sheath bolted to the wall to protect it.
The lighting was a single bulb, recessed into the ceiling and inaccessible. It was also always on, for some stupid reason, being too harsh in the daytime and a waste of power besides.
At least I was allowed notebooks and a pencil. No pens, and no spiral notebooks however; it seems like I could make a lockpick out of the cheap metal and spring myself, or that was the fear.
I thought they were crazy, but after days locked up in this place, after my parents not posting my ludicrous bail, I was willing to give it a try.
The block I was in got more noisy, the guard must be making her round. She was built like a man, and probably shaved every morning in between eating nails for breakfast. I'd seen her break the jaw of a violent inmate just yesterday, with no visible effort on her part.
This time, she came for me, and she wasn't alone. There was a male guard with her who was almost as big. At least that meant I wasn't about to be strip searched. Again. "Alright Howe, turn around and hands on the wall."
I did as I was told, and let my arms go limp when they were pulled back so the cuffs could be applied. What was going on? Another meeting with a psychiatrist? There had been three so far. Had my parents finally come up with the bail money?
Conferance toom two was familiar by this point; an old scarred table and two chairs, all three bolted into the floor. The chipped and broken linoleum tiles on the floor, which had to be from the turn of the last century. The one way mirror that made me wish I had more than a brush by way of personal appearance in the mornings. I had been questioned here, and examined here by my new court ordered psychiatrist.
Neither of them were here now.
Instead there was a guy, mid twenties, handsome, with slick backed hair and stylish sunglasses peeking out from the front pocket of his sky blue shirt. The same sky blue shirt that was surrounded by a pinstriped suit that looked very expensive and well tailored to the man, and was capped off with a darker blue striped tie. He looked like a lawyer at a glance, and certainly smiled like one, showing far too many teeth that were so white they might as well be used to define the color; that sort of white couldn't be achieved without help.
The guard grabbed my shoulder and led me to the chair. A click, and one cuff was opened. Then my other arm was wenched around and the cuff re-locked on the metal bar bolted under the scarred table. I was used to it by this point, and saved the glare; it didn't do any good anyway, just like any voiced objections over the ill-treatment.
The guard left before I spoke. "Who are you?"
The grin flickered. "An interested party. You may call me James."
"Okay James, what are you interested in? Does my lawyer know you're here?" I sat back, as much as I was able. There was something about this guy.... I did have a court appointed lawyer, an older guy without a lot of hair who seemed chronically overworked.
"I'm interested in the life of a young mutant with potential, Miss Howe. I hate seeing young lives ruined due to accidents. Your lawyer called me in; you know you're being railroaded, yes?"
He believed me? Why was the first person who believed me a creeper? "No, I don't know I'm being railroaded; I don't know anything, since I'm stuck in here without access to any news. What's going on?"
James narrowed his eyes and his smile vanished as he leaned forward. "Another thing to correct, it seems. No Miss Howe, the attacks in the press have already begun. Most of the public and media are still covering your case with a degree of neutrality, but some are beginning to... well, I'll let you decide for yourself, once we have our discussion."
What? What was the press doing?
I mean it was no secret mutants tended to get jailed, and the public outcry was kind of rabid whenever one did something, but I had a good excuse, or 'mitigating circumstances' as my lawyer told me to call them. There were cases of people shooting their loved ones to death over cheating and getting off, even in today's social climate, and the worst I did was assault. It wasn't even supposed to be permanent!
But that bunny-bitch... she did something. She made the transformation deeper than it should have been, made it last longer than the hour it should have... heck, it shouldn't even have been a transformation at all, just an increase in libido and maybe some enhanced reflexes!
Instead, there was someone new in Luke's place, holding him hostage, stealing his life, and trying to play the victim to ruin mine. I had to get out of here so at least that much of her plan failed. Without some help, there was no way I could reverse whatever it was that bunny thing had done.
This guy was clearly offering, but we needed to talk price first. My dad should be here - he knew how to do all this. Nothing for it, but to learn quickly.
"So, you're here to pitch. What is it?"
James cleared his throat and straightened up. "It is as you say. I am here to offer you support, Miss Howe. A better lawyer than a public defender, better press management than distraught parents or spiteful peers, a better chance in court. Financial backing, in both your private life and with your projects, all at the request of my employer. In exchange, should everything go well, you work a number of years for my employer, working on solutions to faulty genetics and unusual DNA, as you have before. My employer will even pay to see you sent to the best school in the country, should your freedom be secured."
"In exchange for your help, I sign my life away for what? Five years?"
"It is a far better deal than one receives when one enters the armed forces." James returned, cool as a cucumber.
He wasn't wrong. "Why?"
"My employer is interested in innovative solutions to certain kinds of disease, and believes that your approach holds promise in combating it," James replied.
My thoughts circled each other. Could I trust this person? Was it really as bad as he said? "Fine, I tell you what. You get me out of here so I can see what's going on myself, and I'll consider it. Think of it as a down payment or retainer or something."
James leaned back again, his smile returning. "Certainly, that can be arranged. You shall be released inside the hour."
He stood up and held out his right hand. I tried to meet it halfway, but he ended up crossing the table in order to shake, his high watt smile never dropping.
He left, and the Guard came in a minute after. Had they really not been listening? How much had he paid them in order to hold this meeting? It wasn't like he was on the list of people allowed to see me; bills had to grease some palms somewhere. So maybe his right to a private meeting had been respected after all, even if mine hadn't.
Some kind of fix was certainly in.
The guard handcuffed my hands together again, but paused before leading me out. "If I were you kid, I'd just lay low, take my jailhouse beatings, and let the chips fall where they may."
What? What jail house beatings? So far I hadn't even been allowed to mingle with the general population, something I was grateful for. What was all this about beatings?
"The last person to refuse got a few beatings," The guard shrugged, knowing what I had focused on and showing her utter lack of care. "They managed to get out and move on with their lives just fine though."
I knew it, a fix was in. The guard just admitting that told me much; it told me I couldn't rely on her to break any such fights up, for example. She was the main guard on our block, too. I was a lover, not a fighter.
Still, I had at least gotten bail out of the deal so far, if James followed through. If he didn't I lost nothing, and if he did I at least kept my freedom before my trial. It was up to me to make sure that trial didn't become a witch hunt, and I'd manage it somehow.
Thirty-eight minutes later, the Guard was back. If anything, she was more angry. "Turn around, hands on the wall, Howe."
I complied, and was soon being marched down the hall again, with more force than was strictly necessary.
I was still a bit surprised when we ended up marching out of the wing, and into brighter and cleaner halls, headed to the front door.
James was waiting for me there, with his sunglasses on. "Hello again."
"Hello again," I greeted, then got right to it. "What are you still doing here?"
It wasn't like he was needed at this point; he'd already done his thing.
"I thought you might like a ride home. It's not as if you are expected, after all."
Well, with my phone confiscated as evidence and my pocket change just coins, my options were limited. The box holding my belongings was woefully empty, sitting there on the desk. I couldn't call a cab... and I wasn't sure my parents would answer if I called them. At least I was given back my keys.
"You're right. My options are limited at the moment."
"Right, then I'll see you home. We best be off, before the jackals find out about your bail."
"Jackals?" What did he mean?
"The media of course, I did mention you were being tried in the press, didn't I?"
He had. "It can't be that bad, can it?" My lawyer hadn't allowed me to see much of the news. He said the court ordered psychiatrists needed me at my unbiased best.
One of the guards manning the desks snorted loudly, before covering up with a hand.
James just grinned. "You'll see. Best to take precautions."
He held something out to me. It was loose and looked like skin.
"A mask. Stretch it over your face, please. I'm not very intimidating, and I'd like to be able to leave without calling on the police for an escort."
One glance out the door proved he wasn't pulling my leg about the crowd at least; even if the focus of said crowd was something else, it would be hard to get through.
Still, this thing felt like skin; it was gross. I took it anyway, and stretched it as he said; it seemed only big enough to cover my nose and some of my mouth. It didn't cover my eyes and only some of my cheeks.
"How do I look?"
"Like a completely different person. But let's hurry, the effect doesn't last long." James made a point of checking his watch, the way only the most smug people could manage.
"Hold on, I should change first." If I walked out there in prison orange, everyone would notice, mask or not.
"You can't. Your old clothes are evidence, and I'm afraid I lacked the foresight to bring you a new set." James smoothed his jacket and strode on out as if leaving prisons were normal for him.
I moved to follow, only to find a hand on my arm. "Good luck, Howe." The Guard wished me, then let go. I wasted no time following. What had that been about? It didn't matter, I was free!
Wow... that was quite a crowd. Most of them had signs, and on one side of the door, those signs read things like "maximum penalty for mutants!" and other such things. The ones on the other side of the door read things like "Mutants are people too!" and "context matters! and "Free Howe now!"
The car James opened up was parked right on the curb. He got right in, but I had to walk around... through the crowd, all of whom were looking at me. At least until they tired of that and their eyes slid off in favor of staring at the door and yelling again. I could see a few news anchors (not just the man on the street reporters, the actual anchors themselves) I recognized on the other side of the crowd, already moving forward illegally across the street. So I picked up the pace and got in.
James didn't even wait for me to close the door; even so we'd almost been trapped by a particularly aggressive reporter looking to cut us off.
James was grinning. "Quite the circus, isn't it?"
"Yeah. All this for me?" At least no one was following us, yet. I managed to get a finger under the mask and peel it off; it was doing something now, some sort of chemical reaction, and it felt even more gross than before.
"For the news cycle at least, and the money it generates. Place that in the ashtray please, it should be safe there."
I did as instructed, watching as the piece of whatever it really was dissolved into a clear liquid, looking very much like water. We were heading in the right direction for home, at least, not that there were a multitude to choose from. The real proof would be in where he stopped, of course.
There wasn't much I could do to stop the man from doing something I didn't like, but with my hands free I had some options, including just jumping out. The doors were locked, but it was that automatic sort of lock that one could outwit.
James was silent during the ride other than a few comments about the nice summer weather, which didn't help. Not that I had much to say, other than that the weather was nice. I'd have taken rain over another day in jail easily.
James pulled up in front of my house; there was a police car there, but it otherwise looked the same. The entire street looked just as sleepy as it ever did.
Dad and Mom's cars were both in the driveway. It wasn't even three-o-clock.
I opened the car door, pressing back in the seat as something entered my field of view. It was a business card.
"If you agree to my employer's deal, call me. Either way, I wish you the best of luck."
I grabbed the thing and lunged from the car. And of course, I dropped my keys.
James reached over and shut the door himself, and pulled out with a final wave.
The M was a completely made up convention, since my only point of contact was still James, back in California. I'd known whoever the real string puller was, they had people watching me, After all, one of my two new friends had a similar deal to mine. But this was the first order I'd been given, and someone I didn't know had delivered this note. I'd have to check the cameras later.
There was no time limit specified, but I'd better get started. I torched the note and got to work.
I probably should have started with designing the thing first, rather than starting right in; the device was already causing me problems I didn't know how to solve. Wasn't my time with my power supposed to be a source of relaxation? My shrink was under the impression that my devising would relieve stress, but so far I hadn't been feeling it. Perhaps if I could ever get my stupid power to do what I wanted it to, that might be true?
I sat back (actually sitting down) and resorted to people watching. My peers, my fellow devisors, all seemed caught up in their own projects. Even the blue one the slut-bunny was fooling. They all seemed happy, even the two arguing with each other over something in the corner, their heated voices not quite heated enough to reach me, but more than enough for everyone closer, who were studiously ignoring them.
They didn't come to blows which was a bit unusual; at least one of these nerds started something every day, proving that they were every bit as violent as the jocks I knew. It was weird.
I started over, drawing a bit, trying to come up with a professional blueprint like the ones I'd seen from others. It was... an ongoing process.
A bell, a loud bell, rang, and my phone joined it a few seconds later. As it was supposed to, the sound drew me back out of my thoughts. It did almost everyone, really, and we all packed up and moved out. I had two classes left for the day, and I shared both with my new friends. Home economics, which was my fluff elective for the semester, and the class I'd been required to take right after: survival.
The gym electives in this school were beyond weird. I'd wanted to take martial arts, but one look at my record had nixed that idea; it was like everyone thought I would go berserk and start killing people with my bare hands or something.
I clearly lacked the muscle for that.
Still, knowing how to run away or hide from the real threats of the world would undoubtedly prove useful, and home ec was helping with my chemistry and survival both. I now knew how to make two different kinds of smokescreens with household chemicals, as well as how to make homemade pepper spray.
As expected, Sharon met me at the exit nearest the building we needed to go to, books still in her hands while tapping a foot. How she had the time to come down here and meet me, I didn't know, but this wasn't the first time.
"So, how'd it go?"
I zipped up my backpack, taking my que from the way Sharon's was about to vomit everything everywhere. "Not too terrible. I still have problems with planning, but I was able to actually work today."
Sharon nodded to herself. "Well, that's progress. What did you work on?"
"A handheld DNA scanner and sequencer, by request."
Sharon stopped, then started again just before I rammed into her. "Isn't that against... well, you know?"
The terms of my parole said I couldn't build anything like the device I'd used in my crime. "It's close, but it's totally passive. It does nothing at all but scan. Besides, no one could really expect me to just leave a promising line of inquiry."
There was no way I could simply give up the only thing I knew how to do or had gained from the total shit-fest my life has become. Whatever anyone said. There was also no way anyone, even James's shadowy boss, could use a DNA scanner for ill.
It didn't really matter if there was or not, I was screwed either way; after all the expense and favors used to get me here, my benefactor expected a return on their investment. So when they said jump, I had to say how high. The best I could do is make sure that anything I made could not be traced back to me, and in this place that was a dicey proposition. Even if I didn't actually stamp my stuff like some, there were others around who could at least guess something was mine by how it was made.
We made it to class with a full fifty-four seconds to spare, despite not running. I was getting better at navigating around this wacky place. Learning the tunnels only took weeks, unless you were one of the chosen, the exemplar with eidetic memory.
It also helped that most of the clashes between the normal tunnel denizens and the bullies had already been hashed out. with the less human looking coming out ahead so far, mainly due to better organization. Neither group had really screwed with Sharon or myself yet, likely because my reputation was working for me for once.
The other alternative was worse - that the ER crowd on campus was less split than they appeared. It had not escaped my mention that my lawyer, PR agent, and other help thrown my way since James posted my bail were card-carrying, pin wearing members of Evolution Rocks. They had done right by me so far, but here on campus, things were less clear.
Some of that crowd thought that I should not be allowed to create in any form. That my specialty was a direct threat to what made mutants special, and that I would be able to give anyone powers. Or even, that I could take powers away somehow. Which was stupid really, both ways. I could diagnose genetic conditions, but that was all. It would be some time before I was ready to do anything more; years, really.
"All right everyone!" The teacher surged into the room, all annoying pep and energy. "Today we're going to do something simple, and make a spinach casserole! This is a skill many of you will need when you can no longer rely on our fabulous cooks!"
I hated spinach. A glance showed that I was in the majority there, if the faces pulled were anything to go by. Worse, this sounded like something my Mom would make when she wanted to torment me.
But it was a grade, and cooking is chemistry, as the saying went.
At least I was better at this stuff than Sharon. Not that it helped me much, since she was my partner here.
It wasn't completely awful once it was done, and nothing exploded. Really, if the class wasn't right before lunch, I could see myself enjoying it more. As it was, the fruits of our labor went directly into a fridge, and from there into the trash when no one was looking. It wasn't as if anyone here wanted this stuff over the efforts of the excellent cooks this school had somehow bribed into staying here and playing their trade. Myself included. It was a good thing that I had survival after, or I'd likely balloon up.
A good thing; it was actually because of the slut-bunny. In order to avoid being placed in her class, I'd had to move two of mine into the unholy hours of morning, and take a later lunch. It hadn't really worked; I still saw her in the cafeteria sometimes, but I was supposed to stay away.
So far, I'd held to that, a model of self-restraint. Except for the first time, but no one needed to know that, now did they?
"Quit brooding, you'll get wrinkles."
"Screw you Pete." Sometimes I wished I could do that seat of my pants witty comeback thing. What was worse was that Pete had made me conscious of my frown, so now I was overcompensating.
"Come on slowpokes, I'm hungry!" Sharon informed us, as if we didn't know, with her stomach growling louder than mine.
"Didn't you two make goodies today? Or was it another weird day?" It was almost a type of dance, this conversation. A painfully obvious direction for one to take too. Pete asked a question, que the quip in 3, 2....
"Oh, it was definitely a weird day. We made a spinach casserole, as if spinach was an actual thing fit for human consumption."
So predictable, this dance, even when I don't take part.
We joined the crowd and I let the chatter wash over me, sticking close to my two nonchalant sounding yet very aware companions. Right, they were likely still on edge about the threat thing, as if I didn't get those daily.
Sharon placed herself behind me just as we entered the food line, and Pete took the lead. Just like that all the banter from us stopped; I was too busy admiring the dome for the hundredth time to keep my end of the conversation up.
A salad with some ham chunks in it, some grape juice, and a side of onion rings was all I was going to have. Sharon and Pete both had two plates on their tray, and it was all full of junk. It was hard fighting the jealousy down, but I managed.
The slut-bunny was here; my eyes picked her out easily. Even with a later schedule, she mocked me with her smiling presence. At least she was sitting at the loser table, where she belonged, and not up on the second floor with the princess and the blue girl, looking down on the rest of us. From the looks of things, she was almost finished too, that was good.
She spotted me and I waved, pasting a big smile on my face. The full body shudder was gratifying, and her dopey smile visibly slid off her face. The wilting of those stupid ears though, that was her mocking me, I was sure of it.
"Hey," Pete said, moving himself in the way. "Stop that. Focus on me."
"There's nothing illegal about looking," I objected, trying to get another glimpse. She was gone however; run off just like that.
"Yes, but you always seem to go off into never-never land when you see her. So forget her, and let's talk about stuff."
I was game. "Stuff like...?"
The shrug was expected. "I don't know. The latest findings in Nature magazine, maybe? You got the latest issue, right?"
Pete wasn't interested at all in the latest findings in Nature. I could appreciate the attempt. "You mean the latest findings mapping multiple genes to diseases? The DR4 quotient?"
"Yes, that." At least the wry grin was real.
"Well, the latest one found is multiple sclerosis, across several different places in the chromosome, not just HLA-DRB1. Nothing definitive yet of course, more study required (that seemed to be Nature's catch phrase) but the early report from the first analysis was suggestive."
Using the best computers and, as rumor had it, AI's to model the human genome in all its glory and all the possible interactions the genes could have with each other based on what we already knew about each was a stroke of genius, and a project I was sure would change the world someday. It would probably be over before I could finish school and join it, but I couldn't help the awe; it was easily top three of the biggest scale scientific endeavors in the world.
"Huh. They found the set that governs mutation yet?" Sharon asked.
It was easy to understand the concern in her voice; the concern for many was that once mutation would be understood, it would be reversed by the public at large; that unborn kids would be aborted for bearing the markers. Some feared that the reverse would happen as well, but either one was bad from a genetic point of view.
"Nah, too complex so far, even for the super computers. They cross-reference best with data-sets of four genes or less."
Soon though, they would be much better. I was sure of that. If AI were truly being used, then they would learn.
"Hey guys! What's going on?" The last of our small group that I knew I could trust - mostly - exclaimed as she sat down. Irma looked as I thought I should, small, with coke bottle glasses and a figure just shy of a twig. She didn't match my color though, being black haired and gray eyed, with skin so white it was almost translucent. She was also, despite appearances, the most dangerous of us, a sophomore easily able to take on two or three empowered kids herself.
Normally, she was quiet and unassuming, a literal wall flower; but lately she had been making an effort to be 'more like me' as she put it. I kind of liked the irony.
"Genetics of course, as it always is when we let Jamie dictate the conversation." Sharon pouted.
"Nothing wrong with learning," Irma noted, popping a fry from her plate to her mouth. I wasn't sure if it was her hot librarian BIT or something else, but she was always down to read a book or listen when others spoke, especially if it was about facts.
"Says you," Sharon returned. "You need to be more discerning. You aren't even a devisor or gadgeteer!"
Irma calmly raised and sipped at her hot tea (in this weather!) before answering. "That is no excuse not to learn."
Even I found my eyes rolling at that, she sounded so... old there.
I had been ready to go, but with Irma here, I could stick around and wait on her. The bunny was long gone, ducked out one of the entrances while I was distracted, probably. Her friends, those poor people fooled by the act, were beginning to break up too, one or two at a time. The Princess gave me a hard look as she passed, which I ignored. After all, I'd done nothing wrong.
I turned back around to find Irma finishing up, primly dabbing her mouth with a napkin.
"Holy shit, did you just inhale all that? Did you even breathe?"
Her cheeks pinked as she looked up. "I thought we agreed as a group not to shame each other over our eating habits."
Crap, I spoke without thinking. "You're right, I'm sorry, it just took me by surprise is all. Heck, I'm kind of jealous, I wish you could teach me how to eat that fast and not imitate a competitive eater."
"I can teach you!" Pete broke in with a smile, before eating an elbow to his gut, supplied by a smiling Sharon.
Well, better her than me; I wouldn't have held back. I hurried up and finished the last few bites of my own food and bussed my tray.
Falling into step, I soon found myself bracketed again. Even Irma was alert, looking behind us every so often. There were crowds, other school groups and cliques heading to other stops.
"You guys, it is unlikely that anyone is going to attack me in broad daylight, right out on the campus."
Irma muttered some suspicious words before speaking up. "You have no idea. But you'll learn. This school is not safe. Not at any time. Not even your room is one hundred percent safe, and some of the people in this school are easily crazy enough to attack you right in the middle of campus and in broad daylight."
That seemed pretty sad; I wasn't important enough to waste time on. I mean, anyone trying to seriously hurt me was wasting their time - and all over a situation they knew nothing about.
We all went to my survival class, even though two of our number didn't actually take the class. Pete and Sharon ignored my shooing motions.
I really hoped the class wasn't going to be all about the daleks again.
It wasn't about the daleks; instead it was worse. It was paintball, survival class style, re-enacting the scenario of a school shooting from beginning to end, with that creepy teacher acting the part of the lone gunman.
At least the 'paint' was water-soluble, and I got a passing grade. Irma even managed to survive; she found a place to hide in the fake library. No one had managed the A of course, which was taking down the shooter without dying, and after the exercise we had a nice long chat about the value of teamwork, even with people we didn't actually know.
A quick shower and I was again bracketed. Sharon and Irma fell into step on either side as we all went to the last class of the day and a runner up for the most useless; world history. Why I'd even been placed in this class I'd likely never know, it was highly unlikely I'd need to know anything about the Inquisition.
I mean, even geography was more useful than learning about people long since dead who influenced events long since forgotten.
Still I soldiered on, learning with Sharon beside me, even though the only Inquisition I'd like to learn about is the Spanish one. Irma agreed with me on that one, and it was nice to see her smile. She might agree with me that the teacher looked like someone who could have witnessed the Inquisition too, but that note remained un-passed. I wasn't that stupid - I could get away with one, but two was just asking for it.
A pop quiz, ten short questions to prove we were paying attention later, and we were free to enjoy the rest of the nice day. So of course the moment had to be ruined.
He was big and built rather like a male. He looked like some jagged freshly formed rocks had decided to go for a walk. His joints were the orange-red of lava, and his eyes were a deep red. He was wearing some kind of pants that had to be flame resistant, and nothing else. So of course he pointed one big hand at me and spoke with a voice like throwing gravel on a tile floor:
"Howe, one day I'm going to find you without your friends... and on that day, we're going to have a little chat."
Sharon didn't even hesitate. "Why not chat now, big guy? I'm game for some conversation."
Irma just held her hands up and cracked her knuckles, apparently unconcerned about the possibility of throwing down with a guy made of rock and fire.
"Nah. I don't want to hurt innocents. Only the guilty." Man-rock ground out, and lumbered past us.
"Wait. You aren't the type to send notes, are you?" My mind caught up with my mouth just in time to click said mouth shut before anything else came out.
He stopped for a second. "Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. Remember what I said."
This time I let him go, letting my friends stare holes in his back for both of us. THAT was what had threatened me? A mobile rock who might or might not have fire at his beck and call? I'd known it already, but this school was dangerous! What could I even do against something like that?
"You think he was the one?" Sharon asked.
"Yeah. But I don't think he was alone." Irma answered.
I needed to prepare. I needed to do something! I needed to... finish the sequencer before my new boss got pissed.
"I need to go back to my lab."
A look was shared, and it seemed Irma drew the short straw if the eye rolling was any indication. "Alright, we'll take you."
"By the way, who was that guy? Do either of you know?"
"I know his code name." Irma answered, pushing her glasses up with a finger. "Molten. He's a frosh like you, no record but a known member of Evolution Rocks."
Molten huh? So I was right to suspect the fire. And it was likely he had help, because someone would have noticed someone like that prowling around to deliver a threat.
"Let's go before something else happens."
We suited action to words, but at a calm measured pace that Sharon set, as if we hadn't a care in the world. I understood why she was doing it, but I wanted to rush; the labs would be much safer. Even with all the cameras around, security would only arrive just in time to clean up, but in the labs I'd be defended as a matter of course, even by people who hated me as bad as Molten seemed to.
My work station was right as I left it, the project untouched. I knew no one had messed with it based on where it was and the thin, almost microscopic wire laid haphazardly over it. Anyone messing with it would have moved the wire, and not been able to place it exactly as I had; simple but effective.
I still double-checked it anyway; it paid to be careful.
The labs were packed still (or was that again?) with people keeping their heads down and working on their own projects. I joined them while Irma pulled out her phone and messed with it, content to stay down here and earn stares.
I ran into a problem with using the exotic particles I wanted to manage the scan, after all I didn't want to give anyone cancer. I finally hit upon a neutral baryon particle variant I could use to briefly bind to matter like DNA and use to calculate what the sequence said, so long as the computer the device was attached to was powerful enough. Yes, I had just made a way to further genetic mapping. But because I was a devisor, Nature would never accept my findings without independent confirmation years in the making. Devisors were not well regarded in the scientific community - to the point of being laughingstocks.
I still needed to make the other half of the array....
Irma's hand closed over mine. "Come on workaholic; dinner time."
I blinked. Was it really that late? Putting down the soldering iron I realized it was.
"Sorry." I could tell Irma was more than a little bored.
Irma shrugged the apology off. "It's no problem, I know how devisors get. I just took the opportunity to get some reading done."
Irma tapped her foot - once, then stopped - as I packed the unit I'd just made up for carrying. "I'm not leaving it here, now that it's mostly done. knowing my luck, someone will steal it and use it to turn people green or something."
"Can it do that?" Irma asked.
"Not normally, but with devisors, you never know what some of them can do if they get your stuff."
I grabbed the box with my completed but untested work and followed Irma out of the now somewhat more empty workshop. If I was hungry (and I was, again) then Irma must be starving.
"You texted Sharon?" Why was I asking, I knew she did.
"To let her know we'd be there in ten, and then again to let her know we'd be late." Irma answered with a faint smirk that had no malice in it.
"Right. Sorry again."
Her next words proved the lack of malice, something I had a proven track record of missing. "No need to apologize; you're you, and we know that sometimes that leads to little... complications."
That was it, no cloying hard sell, no hugs or anything sappy, just a statement that she wasn't mad. It was almost... no, it was refreshing.
We hit the cafeteria late, again. This time there was no bunny in either of her spots, to ruin the mood. None of her new cohorts were around either, but some of her acquaintances were. Perfect.
I sidled up in line, and Sharon was close enough to the girl that talking to her wouldn't look odd or piss anyone off; the typical response to line jumpers wasn't something I wanted to experience.
"You're Airys, right?" Her parents must have hated the girl, but I was sure I'd heard that name right. Airys Reynolds, the one who could heal and who volunteered at least some time at the medical wing in Doyle. She was a bit shorter than me with auburn hair containing just enough red to make the color special. She had the look, of course, but her face was at least a little unusual. Her blue eyes seemed large and expressive, and her cheeks seemed a little high.
If she'd been in a dress, certain conclusions could be drawn... but she was in a much more modest jeans and tee, it being after hours.
"Yeah, I am." A Midwest accent? Some kind of accent, anyway.
I decided to get right to it. "Rumor has it you take survival with the bunny."
Her posture flowed away from me, and the girl became wary. "The bunny - Yeah I do, and another besides. What of it?"
"Well, I wanted to warn you. I knew the girl from California, and shes bad news. Lies, betrays her friends, the works. You don't want to get caught up with someone like that here, would you?"
Now she became aggressive, almost leaning into me. "That won't be a problem, since no one threatens me, regardless of who my friends are. If they do, I just simply won't heal them when they need it."
"You mean 'if' don't you?" Irma broke in.
Airys grinned, showing teeth. "No I mean when. You know this school as well or better than I do. And anyone who threatens me, well, I've already got a few people willing to take my side here. No, I'm like Switzerland, as neutral as they come. Or else."
Well, that could have gone better. "Look, I'm not threatening you. I'm trying to save you from making a mistake. I've seen you hanging out with her, and she's bad news."
"It's fine," she told me. "As I said, I'm Switzerland. It doesn't matter what kind of jerk someone is, they would be fools to anger me. Especially her, since she can't really fight. Pretty sure your friend there could pretzel her."
Irma stared back a bit coolly, but little miss Switzerland met that gaze.
"Probably, but that just makes us the bad guy." Far better to make sure that those who could be fooled by those stupid ears and dopey voice were warned. That would make the bunny incapable of doing her normal crap and stealing anyone else. Or at the very least, using her looks to get away with it when it happens again.
"We aren't trying to tell you who to hang out with, or who to like. We're just trying to warn you that she isn't who you think."
The line moved, and Airys moved with it. "Right, well consider me warned and leave it at that."
I knew a dismissal when I heard one. Oh well, I'd tried. She would learn.
Irma seemed surprised when I stayed in line, letting the other girl get away. "It's up to her now." I whispered in response. Honestly I wasn't that bad!
This time I decided to splurge a bit, and grabbed a small piece of lemon chicken and some noodles, awash in some sort of sauce that was probably french or something. Irma's heaping tray inspired me, and I knew I'd be regretting it later tonight, but whatever.
Pete and Sharon were already seated at the end of a table, and Irma made an effective break in the crowd. Both were working on their food with ruthless efficiency, and appeared to be at least half-done.
"How long have you both been here?"
Pete shrugged, his mouth full, but Sharon answered. "Not long. We just sat down about five minutes ago."
That might have been a lie, but if so it was an appreciated one. "Cool. I almost got the thing done."
"Will it work?" Sharon asked - but what she meant to ask was 'will it work for anyone?' which was a bit different.
"Theoretically, you point and push a button. However, I'd have to make the adjustments to make sure that nothing goes wrong... So, yes and no. The principle is sound at least."
Gadgeteers were such BS, they didn't need to make adjustments to their tech the way I did. Not that I was jealous... but I was. No, I couldn't just hand people my tech and let them do whatever, I had to manage it myself. Which meant that I was also on the hook for whatever step two was in this plan from my mysterious benefactor.
Sharon agreed with me on the jealousy part. "A shame. What happens if those adjustments aren't made?"
"Well, again theoretically, someone could inundate a person with baryons until their atoms start to come apart, but doing something like that would take some time even on the highest settings, and would be really stupid."
Why were they shoving their plates away? What was wrong now? They didn't even know the effects of that much exposure, I hadn't told them!
"Yeah then we're going to need you there, I guess. How long?"
"Well the receiver will take another day at most. The interpretation software, we could load that onto a laptop in a pinch, but it would be best if we just make a computer for it. Maybe a week for that, maybe a bit longer. I do have to keep up with my homework, after all."
That was a good test. How badly did my benefactor want this device? How quickly did they want to move? More importantly, everyone at this end of the table knew something was going on, if not exactly what. So there was a good chance they were all three in as deep as I was.
"That should be fine; no one wants you to violate the terms of your house arrest after all. Speaking of, what about your history homework? You need some help with that?"
She knew I was weak on history. Luke had always helped me with it before. "Yeah, I could use some. All the burning people at the stake crap sort of runs together after awhile."
Irma winced, and Sharon took advantage. "Then Irma's your girl. She knows it all, from the crates guy on up."
"Socrates," Irma corrected.
"Yeah, that guy." Sharon admitted easily.
We all knew she was doing it on purpose, even Irma, but Irma couldn't just leave it alone. "Next you'll be calling Aristotle a toddler or something."
Sharon pulled on her most vapid blonde look. "You mean airs-turtle?"
Irma flicked a piece of lettuce at the other girl, and hands were thrown up in surrender. "Sorry, I couldn't help myself."
Irma turned to me, pointedly ignoring the other girl in much the same way we were all ignoring Pete. "Yes I'll help you with your homework, but it is a writing assignment, you'll have to do most of the work on your own."
Of course Irma had looked up the assignment ahead of time. "I'll take what I can get."
"I too will take what I can get," Pete said, no longer content to remain silent.
Irma called him out on it. "You don't even have our history class. Are you learning about the inquisition?"
"No," Pete answered lazily, popping one last morsel into his mouth. "But I can learn, same as anyone, and if the three of you are going to be there, count me in."
The double thumbs up were a bit much.
"Three out of ten; would pan again."
"Agreed," Irma voiced loftily. "A most predictable plot twist, and a mediocre ending."
Pete clutched his chest with both hands. "You wound me! Right to my very core!"
"Don't tempt us," Sharon advised him. "We have really poor impulse control."
Pete recovered in a hurry. "Fair. So, are we all done? If so we should get to that study session."
"If I am to lead the session, it would be best if a few more were invited to it. There are others in need of my services." Irma stated.
"Fine, call them. Where do we meet, though? The student lounge is likely full, and we don't have a club space to work from...."
"My cottage has a few spots we can fit a bunch of people in." Another good test.
"Whitman? Isn't that place a little... hectic?" Irma asked
Irma was not who I expected to react like that, and meanwhile Sharon was cool as the proverbial cucumber. "It's not that bad. Everyone there has been really nice so far, and I doubt they will give us trouble as long as they're quiet."
"How about we compromise?" Sharon asked. "It's still a nice day, why don't we meet at the tables outside Whitman instead. We get our study space and people are just as unlikely to bother us, and we won't be bothering anyone else."
An interesting result, and Pete seemed to have no problem either. The solution worked for me. I wondered if I could arrange a little 'Whitman welcome' on quick notice for the interlopers; the laughs would be hilarious.
"Sounds good to me."
"Fine," Irma agreed readily. "I'll send the texts."
"That's all well and good, but you better finish eating Jamie," Pete admonished. "The quicker you get done, the more we can get done."
"Oh, I'm done." Half my food was still on the plate, but if I ate too much I'd just balloon up, and there wasn't time to waste anyway. I had too much to do, and this study session was already a necessary but unwelcome addition to my schedule.
Too many things were just coming out of nowhere to take my time; all I wanted to do was mess around with maybe some genetic mapping problems. I was beyond sure that the correlation between DNA and BIT information existed - I'd proven it! All that really needed to be done was mapping and cross-referencing genes to BIT information, and a simple comparison of exemplars should go a long way toward filling that in... if I could get samples of their DNA. The theory was sound at least.
As Sharon had suspected, the tables closest to Whitman were empty, and there were three students I'd never seen before, standing nearby and staring at them. As if our presences tipped some scale, (or maybe just my own) the three left their conversation and picked the closest table.
I approved; the table closest to them was still in the sunlight, and had to be pleasantly warm.
The three newcomers were all guys. Only one of them was chiseled from whatever Greek mold they made them from here, the other two were more my speed. One was a bit on the chubby side, and the other was just on the nondescript side of nice looking.
We wandered in range, and Irma was apparently more frazzled than she looked, because she was pretty rude by her standards: "Alright, right to left we have Kieran, Kenny, and Edward. You three, right to left we have Sharon, Jamie, and the idiot behind us is Pete."
Kieran was our nod to the Greek aesthetic, Kenny looked familiar now that I was closer and was the chubby one, and Edward was the handsome but ultimately forgettable one. I was pretty sure I knew Kenny from the labs, but I'd never met the other two.
"Pleased to meet you all." I said, surprising myself by meaning it.
A round of similar sentiments later, we all sat down and pulled out phones or Whateley issue tablets. I of course, had the pleb tablet, even though the tech wasn't actually that bad. It was just state of the art for normal tech, really, but that still made it far behind the best this school had to offer. Surprisingly enough so did Pete; I'd have expected him to have better. Sharon and Irma were rocking phones, Kenny had a tablet that looked like his own design and I could respect that....
Edward had the new Apple model. The one that was released a few weeks ago, and still had a waiting list for. The one that had to cost a thousand or more.
Kieran was using his phone, thankfully, or my head would have spun. I didn't want to believe Irma was hanging out with these people because they were rich and connected?
We all synced up and started in. Irma led the session, asking questions and making 'suggestions' on where to review just like a professional teacher might. By the time the sun began to set, I felt much better about the upcoming test or potential pop quiz. The teachers here did so love their pop quizzes. Edward at least, seemed to have a joke for every occasion as well, so that was nice.
But I had to get up early, and I was getting tired. I was such a nerd. "Alright, it was night meeting you all, but I think I'm going to go now. Thanks Irma, You helped me a lot. Good night everyone."
The study group could stay there, but I could already feel the unease grow behind me. With me gone, the others were feeling less secure in their position and paying more attention to the less 'human standard' looking coming and going among them. It was mildly disappointing, but people were like that sometimes.
Once inside the cottage doors I took a breath; as long as I didn't start anything, I would be safe here at least. Monitored for sure, but safe. I could deal with it.
Room 212 opened easily to my key, and proved empty, which was a bit of a blessing. Melissa was cool, if not in the know, but when she lost control and her skin went from 'is she glowing?' to 'shopping mall light with no filter' the strobe effect made it hard to sleep... and sleep was just what the doctor ordered for today. I had enough of my homework done, I'd deal with the rest tomorrow.
My bed was comfortable, at least. Not like the one before it.
The bed was hard. I guess I should have expected it really, since it was more of a cot; a metal frame bolted to both the ceiling and the wall, with a body-sized pad that had the same thickness of my yoga mat back home. I'd been strip searched, fingerprinted again, and given blue denim to wear, with a white tee shirt of all things.
They'd even forced me to open my mouth and checked that.
I was still reeling. Somehow, I'd lost. Six years. The talk was six years here, for a first offense. It wasn't even supposed to be permanent, it was all that bitch's fault, I'd told them that on the stand! I hadn't lied! But it didn't matter to the jury, and hadn't mattered to the judge. A mistake, and I'd even admitted it. I'd never meant to hurt anyone.
It hadn't taken the police an hour to drag me out of the courtroom and throw me in here.
There was even a camera in the corner of this cell; not in the others I could see, just this one.
I could hear footsteps down the hall over the catcalls. The crooks in this place, the real bad people, certainly did not sound happy about me being here.
The footsteps resolved themselves into James, still wearing the suit he'd worn in court, and walking alone through the prison.
"Good, you're alone."
I turned to him. "For now. Well, I guess this is it, huh? You gave it your best shot, but just like you said, the fix was in from the start."
How else would you explain a misdemeanor first offense landing me in here?
James smiled. That insufferable smile. "It's not over yet. Not until sentencing. At the very least we can spin your need for mental health care for a reduced sentence. No, I'd say our association is a long way from over; there are many options to explore, yet."
"I'm not crazy!"
James held up his placating hands. "Of course not, but if it's to stop a miscarriage of justice, then a little white lie won't hurt, will it?"
The lie would probably hurt less than whatever would happen to me in here, if those shouts that were still sounding out were to be believed. I'd be thrown into general population sometime, after all.
"I just wanted to assure you, that your benefactor has not given up on this fight, or you," James continued. "We are committed to seeing you free once again, and so you should do your best to help us."
"Help you how? I'm in prison, here." If only he didn't sound like so pompous. I wasn't a crowd, and he wasn't running for office.
"Don't cause any trouble, and don't make any waves." James replied, his focus sharpening for a moment, his gaze spearing me.
I wasn't the type. "I'm not going to do anything - but in case you can't hear, I don't think I'm going to be in charge of that."
James waved that off. "You won't need to worry about those others just yet. You've been remanded and your bail revoked, but you're not truly in the system until sentencing."
It certainly felt like I was in the system from here. "So don't do anything stupid, got it."
James hovered for a moment longer, as if to drive the point home, then turned. "Alright, take care of yourself until we meet again."
He walked off without a second glance. I sat down on the bed, and could feel the tough springs poking at me through the mattress.
I settled into my comfy bed, already half asleep, and drew my blankets closer. Stupid early mornings. Stupid lack of good coffee. Stupid ankle bracelet and curfew.
Stupid bunny bitch.
It was all her fault. All of this was.
She had stolen Luke from me, and done all this, and ruined my life.
....it had to be her fault.
Because if it wasn't....
if it wasn't her fault... then it was mine.
-Whateley Academy, 9:59 pm-
Sharon steeled herself, gave one last glance at the device on the table. It ensured her that she was the only thing in this section of the tunnels capable of listening in. Just as it had assured her the last time she looked at it, two seconds ago.
She took a deep breath and jammed the large button set in the machine before her, then took the measured step back before the projection formed fully.
The projection was a hologram, all blue, and this time it showed a man in a concealing robe, with only his chin giving the game away. "You're late."
She was late. The standard procedure was to hit the button right on the hour, to the second. Otherwise, the request for communication would be ignored on the other end. She had pressed the button at two seconds after the hour. But her contact had also broken protocol in answering it.
"And you're dressed like a Jedi. Neither of us are in the running for employee of the year, here."
The cowl was pulled down. "That's Sith. You have no appreciation for the classics, apprentice."
"I am aware, James. Can we cut to the chase?"
The device on the table was still giving the all clear, but Sharon knew this little safe room could be burned at any time. The only thing it had going for it was it supposedly belonged to another club, who had no idea as to its true purpose.
James shrugged the robe off entirely, revealing a very well tailored suit. "Certainly; report."
"Operation mud fall was a complete success. The target is now bound tightly to us, even as others are pushed away. Some level of trust has been obtained, and the next phase of the operation can commence at any time."
"Excellent. You've done well, and your bonus will reflect that. Control out."
Just like that, the connection was cut. Sharon worked quickly, pulling one piece from the machine in front of her and replacing it with another, moving two hoses... and now the machine was once again an innocent "devisor soda machine" rather than a communications device. She took both the part and the device with her as she left the pitch black room for the darkened halls, leaving no trace of her intrusion.