I rushed out of the classroom ti the exclamations of the other students. Future detention be damned, I wanted out before anything else could go wrong. I skipped the bathroom entirely and went to the stairs to the roof.
No one was supposed to go up there, but the gangs kept breaking the locks until the school just gave up and let them have their way. They’d still bust people when they caught them, maybe, but the unofficial truce was that the gangs took their business up there, and they wouldn’t get caught. In exchange, they kept their shit from spilling out into classes.
What generously counted as a stairwell to the roof was a rickety, metal framework clearly meant only for the janitorial staff. Cigarette butts found themselves crushed into the corners, and the smell of smoke hung in the air. If upstairs was for the gangs, then the stairs themselves were for kids who just wanted a smoke.
A couple of the seniors were there laughing about something. The girl was clearly far more interested in the guy than he was in her, a four trying to bag a seven. They shut up as I walked by. I had to wonder what they thought about the scrawny geek going into the forbidden zone.
Probably about the same thing that the gang kids did when I stepped out on the roof. Kid’s gonna get himself stabbed. I glanced at the segregation these gangs had built for themselves. Overall, there were about thirty people up here split into five groups.
Two different clusters of blacks, exchanging hate filled glances at each other and at the skinhead group. The obligatory skinhead group, never leave your trailer without one. And a group with mixed black and white closest to the door. They had the lowest status.
The hispanic kids dominated the far corner. They were the ones who all but owned the school. Outnumbering all of the other gangs. They also had the distinction of being the only ones who had an official name. Los Fieles.
Most of the gangs these days didn’t give themselves names. That practice, much like gang colors, was for the nineties. Now the gangs were run more like terrorist cells, where you only knew your crew and your crew boss.
If you needed to check affiliations, there were any number of codewords or hand signs to give your secrets away, but they kept their memberships as tight and blind as possible. The exception being the supervillains; if your group had one of those at the top, you bragged about it to everyone.
Because having powers changed all the rules.
I laughed at the thought. It probably sounded more psychotic than mirthful, venting the stress of what just happened. The whole point of wearing a mask was to make sure no one knew who you were when you went after assholes like these.
Others glared, sizing me up and deciding just what to do about me. I’m sure they had their share of kids come up here, not realizing their mistake. Most of them didn’t laugh like a crazy man.
One of the guys near the door just laughed along with me. “Man, you clearly need to chill. Doctor saystoo much stress is bad for you. And I have just the prescription.” He held out his hand, offering a small dark blue pill. “Don’t worry, this one’s on the house.”
I looked at him. “So, the first one’s always free? Sounds familiar.”
He shrugged. “Hey, still gotta run a business, y’know. Ain’t forcin’ anyone to accept my hospitality.”
A quick glance was all it took to know that was a lie. Whatever the pill was, some brand of ex, or Molly, or whatever the fuck they were calling it now, I either took it or there would be trouble. The pill would be physical proof I was up here doing a crime, which made my credibility somewhere between ‘zero’ and ‘perp’ if I went to the cops. If I didn’t take it, my status would be ‘unconscious’.
In a way, it was almost touching. These people would be more than happy to murder each other and dump the bodies in the Potomac, but they would work together without hesitation to deal with an outsider like me. I either accepted the drugs now, or a hospital trip later.
“Sure, I could use a vacation,” I took the pill and popped it in my mouth. Now, conventional wisdom about pills is you’re supposed to swallow them and let them hit the system that way. But I knew a few tricks about medicine, and crunched down on the pill, swishing it with saliva and holding it between my lips and gums. They didn’t quite go numb, but the chemicals, whatever they were, definitely felt weird.
Then my out of body experience became literal. The bitter chemical taste and strange sensation of the drugs vanished, replaced by that damn shimmer of watching myself dissolve yet again. “Not that easy for me, these days.”
“Fuck! He has powers!” No idea who said it, but murmurs went through the crowd. Their eyes went from suspicion to fear, and some were reaching into their clothes for what I assumed were weapons, or maybe cell phones. Didn’t really matter to me, either way.
“Relax, guys, I’m not here for trouble. Just need to make a call.” Without the echoes, amongst other things, of the bathrooms. “You don’t mind giving me a few minutes of privacy, do you?”
I had to wonder exactly what they were thinking. They knew I had powers, they didn’t know what those powers were. Some Imbued got powers like ‘anyone who tries to attack me bursts into flames’, so people preferred not to start fights with them. Us. If they did decide to test me, well, I hoped they’d try. Thirty teenager gangbangers were nothing compared to a single Kitten. Hell, all I needed to do was tag a few of them with my power and start teleporting them around. It was far too cold out today to fight naked.
The pusher must have seen the eagerness in eyes, because he stepped aside. “Hey, man, free country.”
He and his buddies went inside almost as soon as I stepped past them, leaving me with the others. They were kind enough to clear out and let me have a spot near the edge. I pulled the phone out and dialed Anima’s number. Fuck, what am I supposed to do? How do I even ask what I’m supposed to do? I’ve never known an outed Imbued before, not in person.
She picked up on the third ring. “Sorry, I was expecting your call later.”
May as well just pull the band-aid off now. “My cover was blown.”
The line stayed silent long enough that I wondered what happened. “Okay, just give me a second.” The phone went quiet, kinda like I was being transfered to another line but without the shitty music. I pulled myself together, and gave looks at the people trying to edge close enough to hear the conversation. While waiting I found a good spot against the wall to hide from the wind. The phone clicked after about a minute and a half. “Alright, so how bad? On camera, any witnesses that know your civilian identity? Any way to convince them they’re wrong?”
I thought for a second. “Cameras wouldn’t surprise me, but doubt it. Couple dozen witnesses who see me almost every day. No mistaking it. They don’t know what I can do, but they definitely know I can do something.” What the fuck am I supposed to do? “I’m not sure what to do with a public power.”
“How did it happen? And where.”
“Umm… well, I was in class and” stupidly forgot my inhaler because I thought I was untouchable, same thing that caused me to lose against Kitten. “I fell asleep and my powers activated and everyone saw it.”
“I thought you said you didn’t need sleep.”
“My powers changed while I was fighting Kitten. I didn’t realize they changed this much.”
“You Surged during-? Dammit!” She took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m not really qualified to explain Surges and we don’t have time right now. Alright, there are laws preventing colleges from discriminating-”
“I’m not a college student.”
“Of course you’re not.” Translation: this kid’s a moron. “Okay, anti-discrimination still in effect. You’re good for the rest of the day, but as a minor, the school is mandated by law report your manifestation to the authorities and your parents.”
So now Mom and Dad find out. Muck futhering goat testicles. “What about villains? Are they going to come after my family?”
“Ordinarily, I’d say no. First, while the school must tell your parents and authorities, they are by law forbidden from revealing your identity to the public, as are the papers.” Anima hesitated for a moment. “Then, there aren’t many villains that stupid or psychotic. They tend to get themselves wiped out pretty quickly. But.”
“But Kitten.” God damn everything.
“But Kitten. It’s hard to know what someone like her will do.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. She tortured, humiliated and mocked me, all to guarantee I’d come after her again. She was a Truthsayer, she had to know there was no need to attack my family, I was going to kill her no matter what. Yet, she was a psycho who might do it just for fun. I put that thought aside, under the long list of things I couldn’t change. “We’ll worry about that later. What else am I looking at?”
“It depends on a number of things. They’ll pull up your school records and point their Espers at you. Find ways to pressure you into PREP. Maybe get your parents to talk to you about it. They’ll give you some lines about how PREP is to train you to use your powers if you want to be a hero, or help you find a career where you can make a lot of money using your powers in the private sector. That’s true, sure, but it’s also so they can catalog your abilities and psychological traits in depth, in case they need to take you out.”
“Okay, sounds like an easy ‘go to hell’ to me.” I was pretty sure they wouldn’t want me going after Kitten once I signed up for their bullshit. That, and I didn’t like the idea of them having psychics crawling around inside my head. Metaphorically or literally. Normal shrinks were bad enough; I didn’t want to deal with ones that had powers.
“If they figure out about Kitten, and some Espers or even normal investigators might put it together, then they’ll pull out the really big guns.”
“Well, that sounds not ominous in any way whatsoever.”
“Don’t worry, they’ve learned from experience that hard selling is a bad plan. Especially on someone who might rank in the top hundred supers in the country. Which is a key point here, you walked away from a fight a top level villain that’s not afraid of killing her opponents. That makes you almost as high priority as she is. If they ask you to talk to a guidance counselor, then they don’t know. If they have one of their people make an appointment with you, they know about Kitten. Then it’s just a guess over who they’ll send.”
“Any hints?” The more Anima talked, the more I became convinced she’d been through this, herself.
“Would you say you’re easily influenced by attractive women?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that.” It may be true, but I would never actually say it.
“Well, if you were, they’d go with Sapphire or Sympathy.” She spit out their names. “Might go with them anyway. Sapphire’s a celebrity; they might figure they can use that for leverage. Sympathy’s young, but a genius-level manipulator. I suspect it’s part of her powers. Don’t believe anything that lying skank says. Not that Sapphire’s better. They will tell you whatever you want to hear, as long as it furthers their goals. Then they’ll use you until you have nothing left to offer before throwing you away. ”
And that is the voice of someone who’s been burned hard.
Sapphire, I knew of; Anima wasn’t wrong about her being a celebrity. She’d been doing the hero thing since before I was born. Sympathy I’d never heard of before. I resolved to look her up online. “Got it, beware the babe brigade.”
“After that, I’m not sure. You’re not the type who’d listen to Guardian, are you?”
I could hear a note of disapproval in her voice. Not the same hate as when she talked about the other two, but disapproval. With the way he ran his mouth, I couldn’t say I blamed her. “You mean there isn’t a law against him talking to people? They need to fix that.”
She chuckled a little, and I relaxed. Anima was someone I wanted on my side, for a number of reasons. “If only. But I can’t tell you who else to expect. I don’t really know most of them, or you, well enough to guess how they plan around these things. That and they have Espers, so they’ll be able to plan in ways we can’t.”
“Doesn’t matter, I’m not interested in what they’re selling.” No matter what they might offer, it got between me and Kitten. And that was not acceptable. If I didn’t go after her, she would come for me or my family. The bell buzzed for classes. Fuck, I forgot about that. “Umm, I gotta go. I’ll call you later, if that’s alright.”
“It might be best to wait until the heat dies down a bit. I’ve got a friend who can tell you more about Surges. We’ll plan for the weekend.”
Dammit. “Okay, I can do that.” I don’t want to, but I can. “Bye.”
I hung up the phone and rushed down to get my books. I even skipped the stairs, in favor of the gravity method.
“Jesus fuck!” Huh, same couple as when I went up. Boy, their teachers are gonna be pissed. I was out the door before my copy even finished dissolving on the floor.
At least the damn Home Ec room was on the top floor, so it didn’t take me long to get to the room. Students hesitated as they noticed me, some even backed up out of the doorway so I could get into the classroom.
Ferne cut in through the gap, my books once again on top of hers. “Next time, you owe me ten dollars.”
I took the books, and followed her out. “You, uh, don’t seem like this bothers you at all.”
She shrugged. “Second thing they teach you in psych, right after ‘how does that make you feel’ in the handbook. The best way to handle a life changing situation is to let the subject know that nothing’s changed between you. Adapt for the context.”
Huh, having someone act like I’m normal is comforting. “In what part of that handbook do they tell you to tell the ‘subject’ about that trick?”
“Oh, that one’s specific to you. Superhuman senses are more common than any other type of power, and many of them are Truthsayers. It’s better just to tell the truth than risk a perceived violation of trust.”
“Huh. Maybe I should get in that class.”
“Probably not a bad idea. It won’t be an easy ‘A’, but that’s okay, I find the sweetest rewards are the ones you work hardest for.”
She walked off, and I couldn’t help but take a glance at her ‘A’ as she did. I’ve appreciated worse. There was something about her that I couldn’t quite figure out. But I still had my history class to worry about, and unlike Home Ec, that one I sorta cared about.
People went silent as I walked into the class. I smiled and acted like nothing was wrong, while wishing that everyone in the school was more like Ferne. Wishing they would just pretend nothing was different, so I could pretend I wasn’t different.
Miss Harmon met the class with her smile. “Zach, I heard a rumor that you have powers?”
Oh god damn it, can’t I just catch a fucking break? “Something like that.”
“Well, then I expect this project will be extra interesting for you and the class.” Miss Harmon was all smiles, and she went from being my favorite teacher to the class I hoped to trade for psychology.
Using me as a prop for class participation, as if my day isn’t garbage enough. Why didn’t I get the power to telepathically rewrite memories or something? That’s a power I would love to have right about half an hour ago.
Eddie leaned over. “Seriously? Powers, that’s cool as hell. What can you do? Lasers? Flight? See through clothing? You’re so lucky!”
Fuck me sideways. Eddie did more than half the group’s work, so I had an obligation to answer him, but I wanted to punch him.
“So, in order, the answers are no, I prefer to think of it as ‘falling with style’, and they said they were fresh out.” Huh, I can see through clothes, can’t I? Thanks a lot, Eddie, now I’m going to be tempted to use that power every time a girl gets close. “But I can’t go around telling everyone what my powers do. The less you know, the better off you are, just in case the supervillains come asking.”
Eddie’s smile faltered a little. That’s right, there are like twenty goddamn gangs in this school, and a few had at least one supervillain in them. Word will spread like wildfire. “That’s kinda heavy.”
Cassie leaned over, giving me a more than generous view down her shirt. “No x-ray vision, huh? Are you sure?”
I managed to pull my eyes away from her cleavage, nowhere near fast enough to fool anyone. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed by now.”
“I believe you.” Her look was smoldering. “Guess you just have to do things the old fashioned way, huh?”
What. “Uh… Yeah, I guess I do.”
“Okay, class,” Miss Harmon spoke, and I used that excuse to look away from Cassie. I had other things to think about right now. Like class, and Kitten, and everyone and their god damn second cousin knowing I had powers. “Sarah, it’s your turn to present for your group.”
Sarah wasn’t a popular student. For one, she was on the pudgier side, plus she was a freshman in a class full of juniors and seniors. She was also crazy smart, and she wouldn’t let you forget it, which didn’t earn her a lot of friends.
Anyway, her team got to work setting up pictures and charts on the board. “Our presentation is on the nineteen forties. Starting with the premise that, without Imbued involvement, the Second World War would not have occurred.”
Of course she’d pick something like that. Bold, ambitious and invalidating most of the class’s projects by saying ‘your theory can’t exist because mine disproves it’.
“To start, we have to look a bit earlier, at the Treaty of Versailles, which crippled Germany economically and resulted in a disproportionate number of superhumans in that and other nearby nations. Including, as we all know, The Führer. Whose power allowed him to functionally mind control a nation.”
“He took command of the economically depressed Germany, then went on to form alliances with Italy, Russia, and Japan. And used his abilities to conquer Poland within weeks while preventing the allied forces from acting until it was far too late to prevent the brutal conflict to come. Without him, Germany never would have had the resources to start a war to begin with, and if they had it would have been over quickly.”
“Let’s examine the Versailles treaty in greater depth-”
The intercom buzzed. “Zach Parker, will you please come to the office?”
Yes! I mean. Crap!