Sunday afternoon, December 13, 2015,
Highgate Cemetery, London.
As long as she could remember, Tabitha Ann Dieulafoy had been fascinated by the building styles tucked away throughout her hometown. There was always something fashionable, gaudy, tacky, dated, or quaint being put in somewhere. If there weren't, then something else was being excavated, renovated, or left waiting for the street artists or wrecking crews to finish up. It was like London wasn't so much a place as it was a shabby sense of some place that the rain and residents had never figured out how to scrub clean.
By middle school, Tabitha had become a deft landscape and architectural sketch artist. Pencil and charcoal were her go-to's. After bouncing around in a rucksack, they got every bit as grubby as her hometown. Of late, she found herself more and more interested in what went into making a building or a street what it was. What made a council block little more than a brick-clad pile of prestressed people and miserable concrete? How long did a pub have to age in place until when you went in, you were Tabbs or Chaz or Big Mike? But further down the road, in the city offices designed by forward-thinking architects (or their interns), you were only some mixed-race Islander bint or a third-generation Paki or that queer-looking bloke.
She'd heard somewhere that some of the best laboratories for researching how materials stood up were the local cemeteries. Every building material ever, literally under the sun, sat waiting for someone to have a look. That didn't mean Tabitha was going to tell her mates she spent her vacation free time parked on a public bench. She wasn't that mental!
"Pardon me, young lady. Do you mind if I sit here with you?"
The old woman looked normal enough. No makeshift adult diapers, nor muttering about what the aliens were up to. If anything, she was as well-kept as Highgate itself. Furthermore, it wasn't her place to root around the woman's private matters!
"Please. Be my guest," Tabitha said, picking up some of the stuff she'd left out.
"Thank you, dear. I'm not as spry as I used to be."
"Just between us, I might say the same. But then, I've got a couple of younger brothers to babysit now and then."
"I remember looking after one or two of my own. Sometimes, I thought it was my mother's way of getting even for my past mischief!"
"That's a fair cop, yeah. But we usually have a good time of it. That's as important as having time on my own."
Tabitha laid a few more lines down on the paper before something occurred to her. It's funny how the time runs faster each year.
"I don't mean to pry, but that's what you're here for, right? — someone in the family? Umm?"
"Tabitha. Or Tabbie, if you like."
"I think I like the sounds of both. You must be one lucky young lady!"
"Don't I know it!"
They shared a smile, the two of them. People with names aren't such strangers, are they? Tabitha let herself fall back into that hazy place she went to for making the image on paper match what lives in her mind while just talking.
"What I mean... And sure, it sounds naff. But when I look around, I've got my family, my friends, this crazy old city to call home. That last part? I mean, sure, I'd like to see more of the world. Who wouldn't? But I've seen enough travelers running ragged from jet lag and what-have-you that I'm in no hurry."
"You have? How would that be? You've a fine eye and hand for drawing, but a girl your age should still be in school."
"My family owns a couple of hotels. As far as I can tell, that's a fine way of saying that the banks do the owning. We just run the place and look after the guests. I pitch in, but that doesn't get me out of homework."
"Lucky indeed, but somehow I doubt you all just run things. Speaking of running, I see my ride's headed back this way."
Maggie stood up, smiling once more.
"It's been a pleasure to meet you, Tabbie! If an old bird like me has one thing to pass on... Oh, how should I put it? It don't take bricks and stones to make a home for those you care for! Remember that, and you'll do just fine."
"Good luck on you as well, Maggie!"
Tabitha looked up from her sketch to find that Maggie had already disappeared around a bend in the lane. The young lady she'd added to the scene wore a broad-brimmed hat and a starched sundress that contrasted with the weathered cement of the off-center vaults that toed up to the path. Would she be a familiar stranger, or a friend you'd never met? But that was London for you. She gathered up her materials and made her way for the Highgate entrance, soon to be headed home herself.
Christmas Eve, 2015, Cambridgeshire, England.
Despite the cozy fire in the fireplace, Margaret felt the outside cold scratching at her bones. She had enough wood stacked for the winter, coal for the stove as well. Plenty of apples sat cushioned in clean straw if she decided to bake something for the holiday. Save for the snow brushed by the wind from cloud to roof, the rest of the house was quiet.
She thought back on times when it wasn't so quiet. There were those restless nights when the bed creaked just so. They had been followed soon enough in shouting and tears, some in triumph, some in sorrow. In time, all her children left. Some returned in shame, some in pride. All returned one last time for farewells, and the march of generations went on.
She looked up at an old photograph of her parents. That had been the only day she could remember both of them in the same mood. She'd always been proud to be named after her mother. When it came her turn for it, she'd named her first son after her father. It was just fitting that way. What would they think to see their little Maggie now? No more siblings to boss around. No more children underfoot. No more grandchildren around to make their parents wish they'd behaved themselves more often.
Margaret walked over to the table where she kept the telephone. She dialed a number from memory, expecting the answering machine. Another remnant of the last century. She left a message saying, "This is Mrs. Hearthington. If you could send someone around, I'll have some things to donate for the Christmas dinner. I seem to recall a certain vicar's love for apple pie. Oh! In case I don't get the chance to say it in person, Merry Christmas. May the Season's Blessing be on you and all your families."
Her Leonard had always been partial to apple pie. Of late, well, it just wasn't the same without him. She got so tired some days without so much as a helping hand. She reckoned she had enough left for nothing to go to waste. Hours later, she'd surprised herself at getting her gifts and kitchen in order. So, Margaret treated herself to a nice bath, put on her best church-going dress, and sat down to a wicked strong cup of breakfast tea. In the early morning hours, she heard a knock at the door. She rushed like a child to see who it was.
"Merry Christmas, my love."
The vicar sent Charlie Ferrer around to Mrs. Hearthington's house shortly after noon. One had to be patient to be sure the roads would be passable. Pulling up to and entering by the back entrance, Charlie found in the kitchen a bounty fit for a feast, packaged as neat as you'd please. It wasn't until his loaned van was loaded and he went back in to thank the old lady for all she'd done that he noticed that there wasn't so much as a spark burning in the kitchen stove. He'd heard once that that stove hadn't gone cold since before The War, not even when Mr. Hearthington passed. In the sitting room, he found Margaret smiling, eyes closed as if listening to someone. Two empty tea cups sat on the table next to her.
Wednesday morning, January 6, 2016, St. Cambria Culdensis School, London.
St. Cece's had been commissioned to fit the quintessential British aesthetics of the neighboring properties. Consequently, it looked as welcoming as the Thatcher era that had spawned it and as sound as the Major era pound. The more ivy that could be encouraged to climb the pigmented concrete facade, the happier everyone would be. Some local property owners prayed for a well-placed Act of God. However, it muddled by as well as any other state school would.
"Ey, Tabbs, what's this? Your father couldn't nick enough cars over the holidays to buy you something nice, like a nose job?"
Tabitha fired back at Evey, "What? Do I look Polish to you?"
"You couldn't be Irish. There wouldn't be enough of a car left to sell. Seriously, though. You aren't playing the pig and purge challenge, are you?"
"No! What makes you say that?"
"Aside from your skirt about to fall off? Come on, I think I've got some safety pins in my locker."
"Why would you keep sewing supplies in your locker?"
"Emergency repairs, and I have been losing some weight myself. Mum's on an eat healthy kick, and there's only so much unidentifiable green stuff I can take."
"Want me to ask mine for her callaloo recipe, maybe okra stew?" Tabitha added, "Green stuff can be edible."
"Please! I don't care if it's curried shoe leather. Ah! Here we go. Turn around, girl, and let's have a look. Yeah... By the way, I'm so hating you now."
"Any boys what haven't noticed your bum? They're queer as fuck. Hold still... Got it. Don't go crazy out there. These buggers don't hold like proper needle and thread."
"Speaking of boys! What's up with you and you know who?"
Evey rolled her eyes. Boys. "Dense as a box of rocks, but he's cute enough. I'm working on him. No poaching!"
"Wouldn't dream of it. What do I owe you?"
"Bring your sketchpad to lunch. I'd kill to see something that isn't anime, cartoons, or paramilitary reality shows."
"Little brother hogging the remote?"
"At least he hasn't discovered girls yet."
"Sure about that?"
"Not really. Remind me to teach him that the Bro Code means his sister's boyfriends are also off-limits."
"Does it now?"
"If he wants to live to see twenty-seventeen, it does."
Saturday, April 9, 2016, Westender Carriage House, London.
Plots to behead British Troops
Met failing victims of hate crimes
Migrants mothers cost NHS up to £1.2b: Brexit payback?
Tabitha would allow that maybe her parents had reasons to be concerned for her safety, but this was London, yeah? If all the morning fish wrappers were to print sunshine, rainbow, and fluffy bunny headlines, a reasonable person would head for the Midlands before Doctor Reaper could drop in. Christmas Days had gotten a dodgy reputation, but that was just BBC holiday hype for you. Even though she enjoyed working hospitality over her school's Spring Holidays, it wasn't necessary to move her to one of the "discreetly secure" operations. To the upside, the extra quid over and above her allowance wouldn't go to waste. Sometimes, she'd take out her sketchbook and practice her portrait skills on whoever chose to loiter in the lobby. She fancied that, if nothing else, she was developing a proper artist's eye for detail.
By the time she recognized the reason behind the lobby's abrupt silence, she had one foot hovering over the bugout alarm.
Matte black boots, rumpled soft khaki blouse and trousers, striped duty belt, red shoulder tabs and beret, and a set of compensating for something sized red sergeant stripes. The man's uniform screamed "Blackest Africa", but the face was "Black Country, UK". Please, God, let him speak English, not Brummie.
"Sir," Tabitha cut off the sigh before she could be so rude. "Unless you have a valid search warrant or arrest warrant, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
The man cocked his head, "What about a reservation? Should be under Keeling, Benjamin X.?"
"Right, then. Let me pull it up."
"Bomba! Back in a tick, I need to get my bag from the cab."
Keeling rushed off to fetch a green duffel bag near dusty enough to match his uniform.
One feared for the room's carpet.
"Welcome to the Westender, Mr. Keeling. Ehm, may I point out that we offer a clothes laundering service?"
"I assure you that we manage far better than that. Didn't you look our services up before placing the reservation?"
"I was told to follow the bloody itinerary," his mouth twisted as he looked away instead of finishing the quote, "and now, here we all are."
Lodging had been prepaid. That was common enough not to question it. Tabitha walked Keeling through the check-in procedures, including key card, thumbprint, and a mug of coffee on the house. It would be horrible for the hotel's reputation (only slightly worse than having police of any sort loitering in the lobby) if a guest were to pass out at the front desk. Luckily enough, she managed to usher the jet-lagged policeman in the general direction of his room.
The next time Tabitha saw Mr. Keeling, he was more suitably dressed in a civilian shirt and trousers. That was an improvement. More alarmingly, he was being towed across the lobby by one of the hotel's other guests — one who'd paid through a Karedonian bank. Next to the statuesque blonde, he looked like a teen being scolded. Tabitha couldn't begin to count the number of men who'd pay good money to be scolded by a woman who could rock four-inch stilettos like they were flats, but alarm bells were distantly ringing in her head.
"... in London, the world's capital! You absolutely cannot go around dressed like hired help from a, a ghetto!"
Make that 'looking like a young boy being scolded.'
"Don't you want to spend your evenings with someone who doesn't rent by the hour?"
The woman had a good point there.
"That's not the business I'm here for!"
"A likely story, if only I didn't know you. Look at us! I need shopping. You need therapy. Knowing you, we both need alibis."
Some hours later, the mismatched pair returned, laden with boxes and bags. It was one of the saner things Tabitha had seen guests do. Yet, something was off in the way Keeling dropped his cargo off in the lobby before coming up to the front desk.
"Miss Dieulafoy, I need you to do me a solid. I expect some idiots to come barging in shortly. Doesn't matter who they are. Once you see them, trigger whatever security you've got. Drop as low to the floor as you can manage when done. No questions, just do it."
Time slowed down for Tabitha. There were alarms to be triggered in specific ways, some easier to intercept than others. Pops' street sweeper was still under the counter, but she didn't want to hit a guest by accident if they didn't clear out in time. Given that the lady checked in as "Victoria" was assembling a BFG from parts being pulled from her overcoat, clearing out wasn't likely.
She hoped the bastard about to kick the door in would break his foot. Something about the idea felt justified, as did what she found herself saying.
"You are not welcome. There is no ale for your comrades, no food for your horses, nor coin for your purse here. Be gone or bear the price of Trespass."
Impressive speech, right? All it did was give the ASBOs time to barge inside. One of them focused on her, of course.
ASBO #1 got as far as saying, "Shut it, bitch. The only thing we want—" before the front doors slammed shut. That was followed by an eery set of clicks from around the lobby.
What the bloody fuck just happened?
Other than being tackled to the floor? Whoever it was, they wore a lot of rose and sandalwood.
A now-familiar voice hissed in Tabitha's ear, "What part of drop. To the fucking floor. Was unclear?"
Eyes screwed shut, she nodded, not daring to speak or look around. The other person rolled off of her. Now that she heard shots being fired overhead and shouts of pain, absolutely nothing about staying low was unclear. A part of her wanted her human shield back. A greater part wanted to punish those who had dared threaten people under her protection. The hotel's storm shutters slammed shut. Fire doors jammed. She could literally feel them doing it.
There were other sounds that Victoria and Keeling were likely responsible for, but Tabitha was past caring. She tasted blood and piss soaking into the carpet. The roaring noise in her ears and the sick pit of her gut soon took her attention away from that. A cold emptiness melted her veins and bones, leaving her too drained to crawl to the office behind the front desk. It was too dark to see, but it was amazing what a person could manage by feel and instinct.
Out of nowhere, some woman asked, "Tabitha? You back with us?"
Of course I'm not! There's all sorts of glowing strings connecting me to everything else, like some sad Punch & Judy show. How is that not a problem?
"Tabitha, we need you to release the windows and doors. Can you do that for me, please?"
Sure! I'll just conjure up a time-traveling police call box while I'm at it.
"Don't know what ... what you're talking about. Looks like a puppet show. Bright strings."
"Good enough. Can you drop the strings or make them go dimmer? Maybe start with the front doors?"
The one going to the doors and their locks looked strong, not droppable. Maybe they wanted her to imagine them fading? They were sort of doing that anyway.
Tabitha heard a distant guy shout, "Door's free, but the lock's buggered. Can you walk her through breaking the rest of the lockdown?"
"Tabitha? Whatever you just did, can you do that for, um, the other strings? It's really, really important. I wouldn't ask it wasn't."
Why was she feeling so tired, so cold? Had something happened?
"I can try?"
"Good enough. Let's start with any strings that ..."
Like a candle snuffed for the night, the darkness closed around Tabitha.
Unnumbered years ago, before the seasons were captured by stones.
Here, far below the sky peoples' scattered campfires, darkness prowled around her and her carefully tended flame. Tired as she was, she couldn't, wouldn't sleep. The tribe counted on them to be steadfast in tending the fire, to ensure the sun would rise again. If no one remembered how to greet her, why should she return? If their fire went out, their food would turn to poison. The people would be taken as prey. Such horrors had been frequent in the days before the elders!
Hearing a mother hushing her newborn so it couldn't lure demons to the camp, she lit a small piece of fatty wood. It was a simple, practical magic, something pretty to focus the young one's attention long enough to return to her dreams. Overhead, the lights became legends and then stars as they trekked across the firmament. Below them, her daughters and daughters' daughters trekked across the land. Some followed the stars to new homes and lives. Some learned to hide from newer lights flying high overhead.
Late November, 1940,
Cambridgeshire in the March of Dreams.
She'd barely had time to send the girls around to draw the blackout curtains and set the table herself, when she heard a tentative knocking at the kitchen door. As far as she knew, Jerries don't knock — unlike certain lackwits she could name. She opened the door on a young woman in ATS uniform. Smudged grime on her brow told of the likely problem. She all but pulled the brown-haired, round-cheeked girl inside. The less telltale light, the better.
"I'm so very sorry to bother you, madam, but my vehicle's broken down, and I was wondering..."
"And you all alone on a night like this?" Like any night anywhere these days, but no matter.
"No, ma'am. We're evacuating patients from London. I'd planned to reach our destination before lights out."
She'd seen determination like that in the girl's eyes. For one thing, she was taking the mechanical failure somewhat personal. For another, if she'd been much closer to there, she'd have carried the injured the rest of the way herself. That had to be part and parcel with the reason she was being sent out of town with the wounded.
"We don't have a telephone here, but I'll send one of the little pairs of ears who shouldn't be listening out with your message. How many of you are there, and what sort of help do you need?"
"We can make do until assistance arrives."
"Can you? Maybe. Will you? Absolutely not, Miss?"
"Elizabeth. We've got myself, Nurse Ogilvie, and four patients on stretchers. Oh! They're stable enough, recovering. But, you must know how it is."
"I'm Maggie. Pleased to meet you! So. Right. I'll send my Leonard and the boys back with you. Consider our home your home and hospice tonight."
Tuesday, April 12th, 2016,
St. Elsinore's, London.
Tabitha was still cold. This couldn't be her bed; it was hardly more comfortable than a canvas cot. The scratchy sheet covering her didn't help. It needed a bath almost as much as she did.
"Let the family know she's awake."
It was official, then. She was in hospital. That would explain the antiseptic medical decor and the fluorescent lights shining in her face. Nothing here felt like home.
"Mr. and Mrs. Dieulafoy, you can stay as long as you need, but don't tire her out. We need her awake for some of the tests we'll have to run."
"Of course. We're happy for all you've done so far. No need to worry."
Sure. Pops could worry for two people when it came to her. Just a couple more years more, she'd be an adult, and he'd have to stop.
"Clay, let the woman tend to her other patients," Mom said.
Barclay Dieulafoy shut the door behind the exiting nurse before locking it and attaching a box of something electronic. Chevelle did the same to the grimy window that no one could really look out from.
What was going on? If both Mom and Pops were here, who the blazes was looking after Ant and Davie? The house would be a wreck in no time! Oh, God. What if they decided to cook for themselves instead of nicking snacks?
As if to clear away Tabitha's concerns, her mother carefully wiped Tabitha's face with a damp washcloth. It felt good to get what had to be stale sweat off, but Mom hadn't done that for her since she was a little girl. This could be bad.
"Who are you two?"
'Mom' told 'Pops', "I told you she'd want to do it herself."
"What can I say? Seeing her like this was making me feel ashy all over. Fiiiiine."
Victoria now stood over her with the washcloth. Across the bed from her stood Mr. Keeling.
"Excuse me, but what the Devil is going on here?"
Mr. Keeling smiled uncomfortably, "Your father's, er, tending to business while your mother is looking for a more childproof microwave."
"The wreckage was most impressive. You should be proud of your brothers."
"Any of my sisters could have stayed here in case I woke up." Oh. Tabitha knew that how-much-do-we-tell-her look that the two were sharing. "Business. Right. You two are their alibi."
"It pays the bills, and lets Benjamin here pitch you a boarding school he has no business knowing about."
"I told you I have a client attending Whateley," huffed Benjamin.
"Is he cute?"
"Very, unavailably, cute," he said. Whoever it was, he must have fallen hard for them. "Hold up! I'm supposed to be the distraction."
Tabitha asked, "Why would I need a new school? I'm fine where I am."
Victoria asked, "Only 'fine'? Do we need to wait for your parents to return? They already know you've been sandbagging your maths scores this past term."
Oh. That was playing dirty!
"... and since your school isn't accredited for mutant studies, you might as well pick a top school."
"I, what now?"
"Congratulations! You're a mutant, Tabitha Dieulafoy!"
Sunday, April 17, 2016, after services.
"But, Mum, why can't we come along with you and Tabbs?"
Chevelle Dieulafoy stared down at her two youngest. Thick as thieves, those two were. "I don't know, Anthony. David. Maybe the better question is when is my microwave oven going to start cooking food, as it's meant to, rather than playing Baby Shark?"
Davie had the grace to try looking repentant as he said, "Ummmm. We didn't mean to break it." Not that his Mum was having any of it.
"Then you'd better mean to undo whatever you managed to do, much sooner rather than later."
Once the rest of the family was on their way home, she told her youngest daughter, "Don't tell them. But, if we were going to an MCO testing center, I might have brought them along to set loose on the Septic wankers."
Tabbie held her tongue and counted her blessings that so far had kept her mother from hearing the added "Pedo shark" verse.
Paranormal Abilities Testing Center, London.
Check-in at this place was much more complicated than a new mutant like Tabbie should have rated. Then again, she knew her parents were well-connected. Operating one or more safe-house operations tended to call for that. For all she knew, they could all be taking the piss. Her testing-only code name left no doubt of that!
"Duckroll? Are you having me on?"
Assistant Researchers Stevens looked up from her clipboard, "Actually, no. For anyone coming in without an assigned callsign, we pull one at random from a list of thousands. They're retrieved from online gaming sites: guilds, clans, alliances, user names, et cetera."
"Duckroll. Someone legitimately thought that was a good idea? How many pints did that take?"
"Miss, I learned a long time ago that ignorance in such matters is bliss."
"Can you at least tell me why an obscure government facility is interested in what I can do? I thought the agencies all shared their files."
"Writers for television are quite blissful when it comes to information sharing among government agencies. We happen to be in a position to redact inconvenient details and records about your manifestation. Now that that's sorted, Duckroll, we'll start with the usual battery of physical assessments. I'll show you to a locker room where you can change clothes."
Stevens had also redacted the inconvenient details about having tennis balls chucked at one's head. Dodgeball was supposed to be a purely American perversion!
To no one's surprise, Tabitha had all the core strength, speed, and endurance of a typical fourteen-year-old girl. A good workout routine wouldn't be wasted in her, but a gym membership might. No one needed to be creeped on by some sweaty waster, not that being stopped for jogging while black would be much more fun. Of course, that inspired the testers to double down on the spoon-bending, Mister Wizard Adventures, and Psychic Friends Network tests.
The next stop was a spacious room kitted out like a mad scientist's workshop. That, or Ant's and Davie's room, what with the piles of cool (i.e., worthless or nicked) stuff and all.
Tabitha asked, "What exactly is this place for? It's not like I've taken chemistry or anything like that to give me a background in mad science."
Researcher Alans said, "Consider this place all yours, for now at least. We have a decently stocked wet lab, some basic fabrication tools, and so forth. We've even managed to wrangle a cache of supplies and spares. Short of thermonuclear devices, and other weapons banned by treaty, do whatever inspires you!"
Alans' cache of supplies and spares was, in any other sense, a table piled high with junk. Ant and Davie would love this guy.
If all this place was hers to do with, Tabitha's instinctive response was to clear out the rubbish. That would go a long way toward easing the itchy wrongness vibes the pile was giving her. Most of the tangled pieces and parts could be organized into usefulness. That sorted, she was left with a few, totally suss, puzzle pieces. She swept those into a steel waste bin. Tabbie walked back to the facility's Mister Wizard zone to fetch the sea salt, rosemary, and Listerine they ought to have on hand. If all that, and a hot propane torch, didn't clean those things up, she didn't want to know what would.
"Not that I mind, Miss Duckroll, but could you explain what you just did?"
"I work in hospitality, yeah?" At the man's nod, Tabitha continued, "Right. So, it's bad enough, cleaning up after guests who insist on leaving genetic samples in the strangest places. You never can be sure who or what donated those samples, by the way. But after a while, you get a gut feeling about some of the really sketchy things left for Housecleaning or Maintenance to find. Even the specialty cleaners pack the nasty toys in sea salt. Listerine kills germs, and the oil of thyme doesn't hurt, either. Rosemary, bay rum, bleach, and a good hot fire are also good backups. Didn't your mum or gran teach you about looking out for yourself?"
"I always thought other, um, practitioners, would pick up on anything egregious."
"How well has that worked with mutants?"
"Good point. I think Stevens is still analyzing the PK tests, so let's move this discussion to one of the conference rooms."
"Fair enough. Any idea what the problem is?"
It'd be nice to know whether there's an outside chance of going Akira on folks or not.
"We've got eyewitness accounts of your manifestation event. That begs the question as to whatever we're missing today, but I've still got some faith in my colleagues. "
One boring half-hour later.
Researcher Alans returned with a clipboard and a question, "Any chance you've decided on a real code name?"
Tabitha looked him in the eye and said, "You know what? I've been thinking on it, and I've no idea what I'd want to be known by. I can't use my real name. That's for sure! One of our, er, business clients told me I shouldn't make a resumé of it either."
The testing wonk kneaded the back of his neck. "We're not altogether sure what your abilities are yet. You see, the Kirlian imaging came back, raising questions on how to interpret what's going on. It could be nothing. There is a reputable facility in Birmingham we could refer you to for any concerns."
"You lot ran that three times! Are you telling me I've wasted the last day of my school break, coming here? I could be out and about, sabotaging my mate Evey's latest dating disaster!"
"Not at all! For example, knowing that your hunches might be valid warnings of danger is quite useful for staying alive. Besides all that, given the weather outside, how else would you have spent the afternoon?"
"Work on my sketches. I've plenty of reference photos to work from, but I wouldn't mind snapping a few extra on the way home."
"You wouldn't happen to have some on you?"
"Nah. I was told to dress for sweat. I suppose I could manage to rough something out from a reference. You do have pencils, at least?"
"Somewhere. What subjects do you work with?"
"You'll think it's daft, but urban landscapes. I like to show how buildings and people make their own spaces."
"I'll be right back."
Researcher Alans returned with paper swiped from the photocopier and an assortment of pencils. Not ideal, but good enough. The photo he "happened" to have focused on a Georgian row house, all whitewash and replacement casements, that had seen better days.
"A real fixer-upper, ennit," Tabitha teased the house-proud technician. Just the same, she knew there was more to see here. "Could you spare me a straight edge? Lots of perspectives here, and I'm not that good."
Maybe the fixer-upper comment had been too on-the-nose?
"I didn't mean to criticize, but I can see the," Only one? No. Two. Hoping for more to come. "...owners have some work ahead of them. It'll be worth it. You'll see."
Tabitha began to work on the image building in her mind. Images, really. The slate roof couldn't be original to the building, but there were things that could be done to emulate a sturdy lead cladding roof. The casement windows needed to go. Sliding sashes and six-over-six windowpanes were the way to go. With the right three-layer design, a casual observer would never suspect the windows weren't original. Nonetheless, everything old wasn't new again. The front steps could, with a bit of gimcrackery, hide a wheelchair lift...
Well over an hour later, Tabitha looked up from the sketch-covered pad.
"Here you go! I did the best I could, but there's just not enough setback from the street to soften all the lines and angles with plantings."
"That... That's. Do you mind if I make copies for my, ahem, partner to look over? I'm sure h— they'll be interested."
"As many as you need. If it helps the two of you make a proper home out of your house, I'm good."
That was an odd way to put it, but it seemed to make the guy happy.
"Speaking of which... Please don't take this the wrong way, Miss. But, what about 'Homely' for a code name?"
"Is that meant to be some kind of commentary on my looks?"
"No! What I meant was that your comment about house and home, it fits you." Alans stumbled on, "'Homie' would be an obscenely inappropriate choice, though some American is sure to be using it. But 'Homely' as in, maybe, 'Last Homely House East of the Sea' might work? If not, you can change your code name fairly easily until your eighteenth birthday."
Tabitha thought about it the whole time the Tolkein fan was hogging the office facsimile machine and pretending not to have terribly stuck his foot in it. She waited until he nervously sat back down.
"Good afternoon, sir. I'm Homely. How might I help you today?"
Mr. Alans' blue screen of death expression was worth the price of admission! Humiliating as the moniker could be, it revealed nothing. Something deep in the back of her mind approved of — the safety of it?
"You're not having me on, are you? It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing."
It will serve
"As another client told me once, 'Confusion to the enemy!'"
"I'll get right on the registration then, Homely."
Tuesday morning, April 19, 2016, St. Cambria Culdensis School, London.
Back to school. Back to school. Jiggity jig. Funny how your own world changes immensely while everything else remains the same. Then again, knowing she was a mutant didn't make her feel any different. Had supers like Pendragon or Gloriana ever had to worry about forgetting assignments over break? Figure the odds on that.
"There she is!"
Here it comes. Why's Beth with Evey? This can't be good.
"Just 'morning, Evey'? Whatever." Evey complained before turning to the other girl, Beth Noble. "See what I mean? Sure, her brother Davie may have told you she was in hospital, but here she is."
"Why would he do that?"
"Because Davie's a little oik trying to drum up all the sympathy he and Ant can get."
Evey sighed. "What did they break this time?"
"Mom's new microwave oven."
That put an end to Beth's sympathy. "I was pretty sure that 'cooties' wasn't an official diagnosis, but it was worth asking. See you all in class. Oh! Love the contacts, by the way."
Evey waited for the class busybody to clear earshot before saying, "Contacts, eh?"
"I might have mentioned hitting a few shops on Saturday, just in case. Otherwise, half the year would've already heard about your terminal cancer or something."
"I owe you. How'd the date actually go?"
Evey pouted, "Dev's a bit dense."
"Ouch. So, when'd you figure it all out?"
"I do watch the telly now and then," Evey said. She put on her best Clueless Witness From Essex #1 imitation.
"Oh, he was such a nice, quiet boy. Never gave a'body any problems. So polite, too! But then one day his eyes, they... It was like they changed, you know? At first we all thought he'd gone in for some dodgy contacts, what with his eyesight being rubbish. We should have known something was wrong when the acne went away. No, luv, I'd say it had to be when he packed on a couple stone of muscle. And, the arse on 'im! It must have been then that he caught on to him having lived the life of an utter wanker and finally gave the whole council block lot exactly what they've had coming to them for the past twenty years or so. Such a shame about the mortar rounds and Mrs. McGonagle's pansies."
Tabitha stood and blinked like a deer in headlights (or random passerby caught on camera) for a solid twenty seconds before the giggles started, gave up, and gave in to laughter. She followed her best mate off to class and the inevitable pop quiz in maths. Whatever a package deal psychic (with a tragically small package) was supposed to be, a girl's got enough on her plate without worrying about next year's curriculum.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016, Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy, New Hampshire, USA.
"Mom! Stella Jean! Look! That girl's got snakes on her head!"
'Mom' turned to see her brown-haired, pale-skinned bundle of chaos pointing at a tallish young black woman whose dyed-green hairdo was beginning to writhe.
"Andrew Keith Nolan! What have I told you about pointing at other people like that?"
"And don't you dare try touching a hair on that girl's head, or I'll be more than touching your hide when we get home!"
"But they're pretty! And, and, snakes!"
The 'pretty snakes' growing out of the young black woman's head looked unhappy at the attention. Mrs. Nolan rushed over before more damage could be done.
"I'm so, so sorry. Normally, my son is better behaved than this. Umm..."
"I'm Ekene Banister, and you are?"
"Connie Nolan. We're supposed to be getting my daughter, Estella Jean, situated." Connie turned a cold eye to her youngest, who was still edging forward for a better look, "Not bothering people."
"I'm quite aware my appearance can be unsettling. It's one of the reasons I had to relocate sooner than we'd hoped for. The real problem is that these snakes are highly venomous, like the green mamba they resemble."
"Oh, heavens! Is there anything someone can do for you?"
"No." Ekene favored the woman with a faint smile, "If removed, they would only grow back. Ekene favored the woman with a faint smile, "If removed, they would only grow back. On a more positive note, selling their venom for research and medicine helps offset... what is he doing?"
"Are those sequins or really for-real scales?"
Ekene brushed her fingers against the green scales that framed her face.
"They're real scales."
"Andrew, make yourself useful while you can still sit. That means go see what your sister needs. Try to do it without making me a grandmother before my time!"
Turning back to Ekene, Connie held out a hand for a handshake. The snakes were too long to risk a hug.
"A pleasure to meet you, Ekene. I'm so sorry to have bothered you."
Tabbie started at the sounds of a knock and a muffled "Hello?". She'd expected her roommate to show up eventually, but she'd gotten caught up in one of her elevation drawings. With all the school in a quiet uproar, she wouldn't be surprised if the House Mothers had missed checking in an arrival or two. At the door, most of what she saw was a huge cardboard box.
"Please, come in! Do you need help with anything?"
"Thank you," said a voice behind the box.
At Whateley, one couldn't be sure that it wasn't the box talking. For that matter, there were no guarantees that the person carrying the box could pass a Turing Test without prompting.
Behind the box was the mutant girl carrying it. From what Tabbie could see of her hands and face, her skin was all-over rose-colored like a movie alien. Glowing red irises added to the effect. But what truly stood out, and up, was a halo of metallic silver tendrils holding a captured grey cloud where the girl's hair had probably once been.
The girl looked back at the door, frowning.
"Could you hold the fort while I go find my mother and little bother?"
"You mean 'brother', don't you?"
"You haven't met him yet."
Estella Jean's little brother turned out to be an otherwise well-behaved boy who happened to be old enough to think of everything unusual, dangerous, or ("best yet!") unusually dangerous as 'cool' but too young for any filtering. Tabbie suspected that the main reason Mrs. Nolan ("Just call me Connie, everyone else does!") wanted to get back on the road to Akron as soon as possible had much to do with the need to put miles between him and all the young women his sister had to live with for the next four years.
At first glance, it looked like Stella had packed for an overseas expedition. A more thorough once-over revealed that the extra supplies weren't clothes but her cherished books, reproduction movie posters, sci-fi action figures, plushies, and shelving. She even had a bat'leth to hang over her bed! Some number of hooks and nails, and yards of double-sided double-tacky tacky tape, would meet their end before Stella was satisfied.
What a contrast that pop-culture collage made to Tabitha's cluster of art-framed architectural sketches and photographs hung on the opposite wall. Interspersed among them were beloved portraits of family and friends. She'd placed a couple of mail-order floor lamps to light up her desk without making life intolerable for her roommate. With luck and a bit of care, the sturdy plants she'd bought would thrive. If not... Well, there were good reasons for the plastic potted plants and silk flower trades, weren't there?
"Tabitha, I've been meaning to ask... I mean, I'm guessing that the High John the Conqueror candle is meant for protection somehow, right? But Saint Barbara? How do they go together?"
"Stella, on this side of the hallway, we have no less than three devisors, two gadgeteers, two energizers, and a certified wizard. Feeling lucky yet? If it's in the least way possible, I want the patron saint of blowing shit up and setting it on fire on my side."
Friday, September 9, 2016, Whitman Cottage Dance Hall, Whateley Academy.
The tables scattered along the sides of the hall had been decked out in catering-grade tablecloths. Strings of crepe paper bunting had been tacked up like a TV show sock hop: colorful, tacky, and easier to recycle than reuse. There were some unique touches, as one could expect. A couple of disco mirror balls hung from meandering drones on autopilot. If they weren't commandeered for a flying robot wars match before the dance was over, the house parents would be out a pretty penny in unrecouped bets. The punch bowls were carefully proofed against any chance of their contents having a proof.
Tabitha understood that the point of a mixer was to mix different groups together. What other reason could they have for calling it a 'mixer'? Somewhere along the way, that message was lost in translation. Electradyne and a bunny-eared boy had made a beeline for the DJ booth. All signs pointed to them geeking out over the sound system and playlist. A freshman boy who she recalled working with the campus food service holed up in the food prep area, guarded by a two-headed dog. Other than that, both the Whitmaniacs and Twainees (those that couldn't skive off) split into those who've discovered that the opposite sex can be as exciting as it is entirely alien and those not yet interested. Of the interested, there were smaller tribes of the self-rejected, dejected, and still hopeful. Of course, the dozen or so exemplars bodgered the distribution, but what could one do?
Imagine what they could get up to if only they shared a common language. The chaperones could, and had, and were intent on preventing any replays. Not that the kids wanted to know details about such ancient history.
"Are you studying the prospects or checking out the competition?"
Tabitha took the offered soda from Stella's hand.
"A bit of both, actually. Best to see which ones crash and burn early, what with the Barbie Girls and Riley Spencer's *ahem* vast tracts of land."
"Like deer in the headlights?" Stella chuckled. "Too bad that Meow Mix already corralled that cute Japanese guy. Still, I have to admit I'm curious whether the horse boy is, well, hung like, you know. Don't you wonder whether that guy over there has a matching horn with enough 'room to grow'?"
Tabitha rolled her eyes, "Sure, he's built like two rugby players in a kit packed for fun, but he's not even looking in our direction."
Stella tracked her gaze. Some folks might be nonplussed by Jordain's metallic scales and her Pittsburgh accent, but not the demi-rhino freshman. Exemplar hormones for the win? They certainly made a heady cocktail for her sensory tentacles when combined with the mix of cheap aftershave or perfume, sexual frustration, nerves, and anxiety. As much as she used to enjoy cons, if the crowds were going to blast her new senses like this, she might need a new hobby.
A fuzzy black paw swept side-to-side across Stella's field of view.
"Earth to Dafira: come in, Dafira, over."
"You were zoning out pretty hard, girl. You completely missed Ratel's last two challenges." Bai Yun stared Stella in her eyes. "Do you need to step out?" she asked. At the girl's dazed nod, Marcie called over one of the other girls she was in charge of. The atmosphere hadn't suited Faollass' and Bloodhound's keen senses either.
Was it two slaps and a testosterone-poisoned shoving match later, or two shoves and a spilled drink on one of the local ultraviolents later? Either way, they couldn't have dimmed the house lights a minute too soon. The confirmed wallflowers were already eyeing the exits. The wannabe DJs, well, technically speaking, they behaved. Tabitha recognized the ancient remix of "Born Slippy" (Ewan McGregor was still hot at any age!) and wondered who'd bribed whom. Whateley was far too far from London, but Whitman was home enough to let the groove settle in.
Tabbie looked up, and up, into the giant's eyes. Not a twinge of danger sense. So far, so good.
The guy's mane of hair rippled with an aurora of colors.
"Max!" he said. "Wanna dance?"
Next thing she knew, she was dancing to "Faded" with a human glowstick. Orc glowstick? He had gold-capped tusks that shone every time he smiled.
"These shallow waters, never met
What I needed
I'm letting go
A deeper dive..."
After a couple of songs, Max guided Tabitha to some relative quiet, off to the side where iced packs of bottled water had been stashed.
"Thanks... Max, right? I needed that."
"I could tell!
"Really, mate. Am I that obvious?"
"Eh." Max waved a hand, kind of, sort of. "My best friend back home gets the same look when he really, really wants to do something, but he doesn't know how to ask."
"Planning on prying me out of my shell, then?"
"Nah. Me? I'm all about the night life. I love to boogie and see everyone having fun, you know?"
"Nice work if you can get it."
"That's what my agent says!"
Tabitha shook her head at the cheerful delusion, then went looking for her roommate.
Saturday, September 10, 2016, Whitman Cottage.
Marcie Blovotsky, better known as Bai Yun, had asked the girls in her wing to gather in the common room after the assembly. What she had to say wasn't exactly secret, but some issues tended to get skipped in Orientation. With any luck, her panda-like appearance would help soften the blow when her girls learned just how little interest most clubs had for those with GSD. Faction 3 didn't need more enforcers, and the Syndicate didn't need more recruits. However, there was no shortage of power-hungry and rejected kids.
"Before we head out to the club fair and picnic, I just want to go over a couple of things. The first and most important thing to know is that you do not have to join anyone for anything."
Penny Dreadful asked, "Not even for the lapel pin flash?"
"Especially not for the flash. Even if the club pin's made of twenty-four-carat gold and set with the tears of your enemies, you've got to look further. How skeevy do they have to be, to be running a grift that hard? There are also campus groups that operate under a stricter don't call us unless we call you plan than others. Don't give up too early on them, but don't waste your time, either."
"Y'mean like the Avengers wannabes and the Tragic Blondes?"
One of the older girls who'd wandered over from the adjacent wing shook her head (and the massive horns that came with). Malefis, was it?
"If you mean the Future Super-Heroes of America, take a good look at me. I'm a member and last time I checked my passport, Hungary isn't America."
Leslie half-growled, "How many other GSD cases have your lot got?"
"Ummm... There's me."
The anthropomorphic wolf returned the honesty with less snarl, "Thought so. At least one's more than none."
Bai Yun coughed to derail that train of thought. She said, "Some groups do have obvious requirements, others less so. Please don't be too disappointed if your interests or personalities and others don't match. We'll all be dealing with that sooner or later outside the school's gates. Actually, I was referring more to groups like the Golden Kids or Bad Seeds, who literally issue invites to prospects. For that matter, just because you look different from others, that doesn't mean you have to join Faction 3."
Turning back to the few loitering sophomores, she added, "Caro, you haven't joined the Euro-Promotional League, have you?"
Caro Hersebeth looked behind herself before saying, "The Beret Mafia? No. You could say there are some lingering East-West tensions. I stay busy enough without joining or hanging out with more groups. The FSHA takes up a lot more time in training exercises and volunteer Security work than most other groups do. If that's your thing, great. If not, no harm no foul."
"Basically, don't overcommit. That goes double for those of you who have trouble saying no."
As soon as the reason for the meeting was over, most of the girls dissolved back into the woodwork. Annie would probably hook up with her friend Tinker. Penny would leave the dorm just to get away from people. As much as she was missing home, Martine would spend all her time with the Beret Mafia...
Stella was content enough that Ekene didn't hold her brother's antics against her that she didn't notice how their RA had arranged things. The two of them could keep Tabbie from holing up with The Commonwealth. Who was she kidding, anyway? The same applied to her and the Sci-Fi Club. Later, when one of the Paranormal Investigation Group started preaching about "snakes in the garden," both girls appreciated having Tabbie around.
"If you're so determined to deprive a village of its pet idiot, why not make yourself useful, and go play Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Movie?"
The comment was harsh, but it saved them all the embarrassment of finding out where exactly Stella was tempted to shove that bigot's cross. He certainly carried enough around to make a multiple-choice question of it.
On the other hand, the whole Whateley Zendo thing sounded interesting outside of her interest in the Jedi. Tabbie and Ekene had no reason to drag her off like that! Maybe one of the martial arts clubs? Maybe she should wait until she sees how much she likes the basics class. Or, not. Had the organizers worked to pit the clubs and their prospective members against each other? Nah. Ignorance and failure still trump malice.
"You Americans do know that every country has a South all its own, right?"
Today wasn't the time and place to explain 'Southern Heritage' to a dark-skinned Englishwoman. Stella could imagine wiser and greener heads than hers punting that topic.
'To speak of what you do not know, easy that is. Perhaps too easy, hrm? To understand the unknown well enough to teach, you must forget what you know. Make room in your heart for that, you must. Or, you will not.'
After all the ill-concealed sour looks the girls had endured, it was a relief to grab some burgers and fries and park themselves with the Faction 3 students. The Underdogs, shoved off into a corner by the usual schoolyard power plays, had been nicer than most. They still tasted fearful. Between Ekene's snakes and Stella's tentacles, it was easy to see why. Most of the eff-three kids were from Twain and Whitman, so there was some familiarity – and mutual accountability – to be had there.
Tabitha hadn't known that scales – and whatever Stella's tendrils were made of – could turn pale. Those yobbos with that Heritage club had managed to turn that trick. Not that Britain hadn't seen a civil war or two, but sane people had gotten over that ages ago. Some of the Euro Promoters could stand to learn how to remove a civil stick or two of their own. That French kid with the cross fetish...
Tabbie's choking on an inhaled fry was fixed by a few sharp thumps on her back.
"You okay?" Dodo asked.
"My fault," Tabitha said. "I made the mistake of imagining what else Crucifix does with his cross collection. I bet they have to be sonic'd at least once a week, minimum."
"Now I'm sorry I asked. If these fries were bigger..."
Stella giggled and shook her head.
"I'd bet his isn't."
"Thank You for Not Helping."
"No probs. Changing the subject, she said! Any of the clubs catch your eye?"
"Monica and I are certified Underdogs. She's sold on these Faction 3 guys. I'm willing to give this group a chance, but I'm not in a hurry. What about you, Tabitha?"
"Underdogs and Commonwealth, natch. Depends on how much free time I have."
Ekene carefully put her water down. Nearly anything else tasted weird.
"My family is counting on me to prove that my scholarship wasn't wasted. Academics must come first. I don't expect many people outside of my friends here to give me much of a chance, anyway."
"Give it time, luv. Those who won't accept you as you are aren't worth your time. As long as they don't try to dress you up as some evil, bug-eyed alien, you could tag along with Stella to the Sci-Fi club!"
"That's the anime crowd. You're all safe with us."
"Not quite the same as 'safe from us', is it?"
"Scoff while you can, young padawan! I know where you sleep."
Monday, September 12, 2016, Room 236, Whitman Cottage.
There had to be something wrong with being happy that Marcie's and Leslie's mutations were modeled after anthropomorphic pandas and wolves, respectively. Maybe not? The girls living there shared cleaning duties for the common areas, with an additional rotation for the basement rooms shared by the whole cottage. Their pelages, and Dodo's and Monica's feathers, mightn't clog up the shower drains the gross way that long human hair could.
No one wanted to handle that stuff first thing of a Monday morning.
"I thought you'd stop doing that when classes started," Stella said from somewhere behind her.
Tabbie finished tucking in her bedsheet before turning to ask, "Stop what, in particular?"
"Getting up so early you can make your own bed. Your hair's even dry already!"
"I put far too much time into putting it up Saturday. Why wreck it with a shower now?"
"Huh. You're right... Only a couple of days. It felt a lot longer, somehow."
"It's a Monday. Unless you've got a meeting, managing clean clothes is enough to make a good impression. Breakfast would help, though."
"Can't argue with a breakfast. Just give me a few minutes to get ready."
Breakfast, Crystal Hall.
Barely one day in, and some of the girls from the floor were angling for better breakfast seating. That excluded the Underdogs, Faction 3, and the Nerd Herd, by definition. Not that it was a bad thing to let the drama queens nest with their own kind. Hopefully, everyone else could have a civilized meal in peace.
"Stell, stop looking for a blue police call box full of trouble, and eat your breakfast."
"You're the one who might be taking this all too casually. Like, look at the guy walking over here. He could be an extra straight out of the Lord of the Rings movies!"
"Who, me? As awesome as they are, they're way before my time! Mind if I sit with you guys? My roommate's still pissed because I played a little music," said the seven-foot-five, brown-eyed ork.
Tabitha looked way up, then back to her roommate, "Stella? This is Max. Max, Stella Jean Nolan, also called Dafira."
Max reached out a calloused hand to Stella, "Pleased to meetcha! How'd I not see you at the mixer? Um... may I?"
"Oh! Right. Please do sit down! I, um, I'm still getting used to the sensory overload from these," Stella said, waving vaguely at her sensory tendrils."
"That would suck. I hope it gets better for ya! Also, for those that couldn't hear: I'm Maximillion Argyle Livingston the Fourth. When I'm not performing, just call me Max."
"Performing?" Tabitha asked. He had said something like that, hadn't he?
"I do some emceeing here and there. I also had a part in Apokalipstick XII. Small, but I got paid for the exposure. What about you? A couple of young ladies like you can't be wasting their lives on babysitting and soap operas!"
Tabitha swallowed her bite of something called french toast. Stella just looked dazed.
"I was told the pro forma questions were Where are you from? and What are your powers?" That might buy Stella some time.
"Me? Originally from Hong Kong by way of Kapalangpur. And, gadgeteer. Exemplar too, but that just makes me look more like me. You?"
"London, and packaged raw deal psychic."
"Raw deal? How'd that happen?"
"A little danger sense, a bit of tech aptitude, and enough PK to trip a circuit, sometimes."
"My best friend back home would say it's better than a sharp stick in the eye. Um. But, if he ever says that to you, try to remember to laugh."
Stella shook her head to clear it. This part of the conversation was finally sinking in.
"I've heard worse jokes from Trekkies."
"How many of them have a fake eye?"
Someone has a dark sense of humor!
"Anywho, what about you, young lady?"
"Akron, Ohio. It's not as bad as people make it out to be!" Sadly, no one else at the table looked like they believed her. "You see all these things on my head? I get some extra sensitive senses out of them. Also, they sting."
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?"
"Now, change both to a Portuguese man o' war, and you're getting close."
"How do you wash your hair, then?"
An entire floor of Whitman Cottage had been avoiding that exact question since she'd arrived.
"I tried shampoo, once. Precisely once. It all seems to get by with a thorough rinse and air dry. Since you asked, what about you?"
Max's mane of hair rippled with colors.
"Otherwise, I rinse it out daily, and use a revitalizing shampoo about every three days. After the shampoo, it's a good olive oil-based conditioner. It's technically living tissue. Just like yours! So, I try to avoid harsh chemicals and the like. Ever try a beer rinse?"
"My parents would ground me for, like, ever! No."
"Don't ask me, mate. The last thing I'd need is to go around smelling like I'd mopped a public house with my own hair."
See? Just another day at school, starting with roommate issues, kibbitzing about haircare, and trash-talking oddball instructors.
3rd Period, Algebra I.
Just another day at school, she said. They surely wouldn't endanger a bunch of kids, she said. Tabitha was increasingly sure she'd have bruises tomorrow. Who knew that surviving Survival I itself would be a challenge? Her muscle aches and crashing blood caffeine levels told a self-pitying tale. If she wanted to protect herself and her family, she'd have to figure out how to play smarter, not harder. Something deep down reminded her that dirtier play was also on the table. Good thing that maths was a safely dull class she could slack off on and still pull a good grade.
Good luck with that! As soon as the class outlines and policies were passed out to be filed and forgotten, the instructor handed out a set of computer-generated "quizzes".
Tests on the first day. What?
Tabitha's fingers tingled for a moment after she printed her name on the scantron answer sheet. She'd run across mentions of the machine-recognizable answer sheet from American shows and movies. Typical. Treat a subject, for which showing your work was important, as an assembly line. Having gotten no warning against a prank or attack, the odd reaction roused her curiousity. Time to see what's what!
Head down over her work, she didn't notice the teacher watching the class for reactions to the mild compulsion ("Do your best") placed on each test sheet. As an general-entry class, Algebra I was attractive to any underachievers, sandbaggers, misplaced techies, or odd mathematician in the pipeline. Since it might be decades before guidance counseling catches up to the reality of positive mental mutations, teachers for the high-volume classes turned to other departments for help. More tenured teachers had horror stories about counselors dumping gifted students into what they saw as "for Dummies" classes. It didn't help such instances that the STEM-oriented students often had special needs in impulse/anger control and socialization.
What is it the Phys. Ed. department was fond of saying? If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying?
7th Period, Powers Theory.
In previous years, it would have been impractical to schedule this class so late in the day. Dr. Filbert R. Z. Quintain had taught here for many years and had been a guiding light in his field for longer. Unfortunately, his didactic style was legendary for being dry and soporific. Applied to afternoon classes, the academic results of that had tended to be dire. Dr. Richard Bergamot had no such handicap! What he did have was a random mix of espers, manifestors, and warpers. Arranging a steady stream of guest speakers to demonstrate other talents might keep the students awake. He could settle for that if he could manage it. For now.
At Stella's encouragement, Tabitha had rescheduled her classes so the two of them could take Powers Theory and Lab back-to-back. That move gave her a break between lunch and the last classes of the day. She'd have to remind herself to use the time for homework (once in a while), but she was sorted well enough all the same. Seeing a fellow Whitmaniac already sitting down in the classroom was a help. She and Stella went over there to sit, compare notes, and people-watch.
As students filed in, some chose a seat based on people they knew. For example, a rusty-red-haired exemplar took a spot next to the only black kid other than Tabbie. Those two had to be roommates. Janice from early-morning survival class waved from the doorway and sat with Tabbie and the other girls. Others went for seats that suited how much they looked forward to participation. A skinny guy, with a shock of lavender hair and the body language of someone routinely shaken down for his lunch money, slumped down as far back in the room as he could. Another boy, whose hair was so pale white that it could pass for glass wool, sat front and center. His movements were so deliberate that it was surprising he could lay out his notebook and pens without a carpenter's square and ruler.
"Good afternoon, class! I'm Doctor Bergamont, and I'll be your instructor for Powers Theory!"
As if it would turn out to be Sarah Jane Smith? Total boffin, this one, but at least he's got enthusiasm for it.
Bergamot continued with his intro, "...the goal of this class is to further your understanding of how different powers work. Put in the effort, and you may reach a greater understanding of your own powers. There's no time like the present, so we'll start off there. I hope you all didn't get too comfortable where you're at. After I take roll, you'll be working in groups based on your abilities. The more you work on discussing them here, the less work you'll have writing it up for your homework."
"In this corner, I'd like our psychics to work together. That would be Miss Breedon, Miss Dieulafoy (did I get it right this time>), Mister Effingham, and Miss Nolan. Yes, for our purposes, that includes gadgeteering and some uses of what some would call luck."
"Like being the lucky guy in a group of four?" Upton asked.
"Ha! That's for them to figure out while you, Miss Buckley, and Mister Malual ponder what makes spatial warpers special."
Designated Victim Guy, Mark Walters, groaned. No one else dared take the bait.
Stella looked around, straight into three other 'you go first' expressions. A couple of them had a twinkle of mischief in their eyes, the jerks.
"Fine. I see how it is. I'm Stella Nolan, going by Dafira. I'm not sure how 'psychic' it is, but since I got these," she waved to the tendrils floating up and out from her scalp. "I can pick up, like, body heat or something. It's not a heads-up display, but I get direction and strength. And, since I started, I'm tagging my roommate Next."
"Fair enough," Tabbie said. "Tabitha, or Tabbie, Dieulafoy. The boffins at powers testing back home thought 'Homely' fit me best. I've got a bit of what they're calling a 'danger sense'. What they couldn't figure out was whether, or how much, that comes from whatever I'm reading or by affecting the environment with PK. Add some technical skills, and I'm rated as a package deal psychic one." She turned to the third girl in their group. "You?"
"Liviana Breedon, but call me Livy. Code name is Provenance. I'm a gadgeteer, and trust me: it's a cool thing to have. The textbook calls it a psychic knack, but Mr. Bergamot's got to be talking about this object-reading thing I can do. Just about anything I get my hands on, I know how it's put together and what it's been used for. With a bit of work, I'm sure I could fix it if it's broken. So, if you're out buying a used car someday, you want me riding shotgun. Next."
"I might have to take you up on that," said Edward 'Puck, not Eddie' Effingham. "Although, if it's going to break down on us, I'll be the first to know."
Stella asked, "Precog?"
"Yeah. It's not visions of doom like in the movies, but I get a sense of how things could work out if I do this, or that, or whatever." He shrugged, "Good enough for avoiding trouble."
"How much trouble you got?"
"Enough to know better than to answer that while people are about to be listening in."
"Moving along! Any ideas on how to demonstrate any of this?"
"Easy!" Uh oh. Puck said, "We'll be grabbing our stuff off the floor in the next few minutes unless you want," He pointed to Livy, "your schematics from, um?, electronics class?" then to Tabbie, "or your sketches soaked."
Shouting soon erupted from not far down the hall.
"Son of a bitch! Not again! I find out who's been—"
"How about I stick your head in the overflowing shitter? That enough 'language' for ya?"
Tabbie rolled her eyes. For a moment, it even looked like she would head out to help clean up the mess, but Puck shook his head.
"That would put the blame on us. Or me, anyway. I didn't do it: I only took advantage of the timing to be here, now."
"That so, luv?"
"Cross my heart..."
"It's on the other side."
"I have no desire to find out, right up close and personal, if hitting the flush handle would — wait for it!"
The latest sound effect, spraying water, almost drowned out a flood of curses.
"Make it worse."
Livy asked Tabbie, "You said you had danger sense? Is there any risk from the floor being flooded?"
"Not to worry: buildings these days have the A/C circuits raised a foot off the floor. What? My family operates hotels for a living! You don't think us kids would be ignorant of how they work, do you?"
"If you were one of the 'old-money' kids I've met in Melville? Yes."
It could help with the assignment...
Stella said, "Maybe? But for a few seconds there, you zoned out like you were checking to make sure. We can call it an extra sense for now and let Dr. Bergamot correct us later. That still leaves two of us."
"If he's anything like some of my teachers," Livy said. "He'll be impressed if we work it out after class. I'm told that there are always some half-broken machines needing repair down in the Workshop. Maybe Puck has some ideas for punking hidden stuff."
Only some ideas? Not by the look in that boy's eyes.
"Huh? Sounds like a plan! What are we doing, again?"
Just another year at Whateley Academy.
Or so they say.