Gene Stephenson’s first period class was music, with Mister Altair. Mister Altair’s experience made him the second most dangerous person in the room. From what Gene understood, his ability allowed him to generate ice. He wasn’t sure how—he had yet to see the feat performed—but what information he had pressed the other students for implied that these powers could be used both offensively and defensively. With a thought, Mister Altair could create a weapon, or give himself armor. He could lower the temperature in the room, or coat the floor in a sheet of ice, denying an assailant traction.
There was a lot that Mister Altair could do with a thought, but he still needed to think. His defenses were not reflexive; he was hardly physically imposing, and he did not carry himself like someone who knew how to fight: if need be, a swift, powerful blow could put the man down for the count.
If he was forced to bring Mister Altair down, he knew he would need to do so while the man was within five feet of Eric Vaughn: Gene estimated that once he launched an attack, Eric could respond by using his powers to escape, and possibly return with reinforcements. Based on what Gene had seen of Eric’s reflexes, he would have enough time to lunge five feet from Mister Altair to incapacitate Eric.
After felling Eric, Mickie Daniels was the next biggest threat. As Gene understood it, Mickie’s power let her transform her flesh to steel. In her armored form, it would be difficult to inflict damage. Given how she carried herself, however, he doubted she would be much of a threat. After all, she didn’t have the training he did. She may have been powerful, but if she didn’t know what to do with that power? Gene was confident he could direct her wild, powerful blows into their classmates.
Neige Altair, Paul Hernández, and Remington Eastman were the least of his worries: none of their powers made them a match for him. As he understood it, Neige’s ability to create ice was inaccessible until after she had absorbed an unknown amount of energy; Paul’s power was asepsis—a flawless fortitude—which would not protect him from injury; while Remington’s augmented agility meant that he could potentially dodge the bulk of Gene’s attacks, the other aspect of his ability—his hollow bones—meant that when Gene finally did connect, it would be devastating.
No one in Gene’s first period class would pose a threat, should the need to kill them all arise, but that wasn’t taking Derryl Isaacson into account…
With Eric down, Gene would need to counteract Derryl. Derryl was a problem simply because Gene had no clue what the boy’s powers were. It was beginning to seem as though no one knew what gift the dark-headed boy possessed…
Gene didn’t like Derryl: there were too many unknowns about him. Why did he have numbers written on his hands? Why were the contacts in his cell phone entered in some sort of unreadable symbols? The biggest question though was what were Derryl’s powers? If the time came when Gene had to take out everyone in the room, Derryl was an unknown element. Did his powers make him so dangerous that they warranted his death first, or were Derryl’s abilities as useless as Paul’s, in which case Gene could afford to let him live thirty-six seconds longer than the others?
Gene needed more information, but he knew he had to be covert about retrieving it. If he outright demanded to know what Derryl’s genetic capabilities were, suspicion might be raised.
“Well, for the first day, classes are short,” Mister Altair explained. “We’re just going to go over the syllabus. First though, I thought we could go around the room and introduce ourselves. I’ll start: I’m Mister Altair, and I started playing the saxophone about twenty-four years ago. I’m a Neo-Sapien who can generate ice, and I came to the New Vindicators Academy for my senior year. After graduating, I attended Julliard. I married my best-friend, and we are blessed to have the best daughter ever.” He smiled at Neige. “And after graduation, I was invited to come back here and teach music.
“So, maybe just… introduce yourself, tell us what instrument you play, and say something about yourself. Neige?”
The blonde girl was blushing as she sat forward. “I’m Neige. I’m a junior. I play the saxophone, and I’m learning to play guitar. Oh, and I have the sweetest boyfriend ever put on this earth.”
Mister Altair looked back to his attendance sheet. “Michelle?”
“It’s Mickie,” a dark-haired girl said. “Mickie Daniels. My mom’s been teaching me to play the guitar since I was about five. I just recently started picking up the drums and mouth harp.”
Mister Altair smiled at his newest student. “Welcome to the school, Mickie,” he said before turning to a skinny boy with high cheek bones. “Remington?”
“I’m Remington Eastman, and I’m a piano virtuoso. I also recently started a career as a model.”
Paul Hernández brushed his long, dark hair out of his face. “I’m Paul,” the deep-voiced senior said, waving to the trio of freshmen in their midst. “I play the trombone. I’m a Scorpio; I enjoy candle-lit dinners, and romantic movies.” He turned to Mickie and accompanied his most winning smile with a wink.
Mister Altair cleared his throat. “Derryl?”
“I play the piano.” He gestured to the spatial manipulator. “That is Eric. He is my roommate.”
Gene shot daggers at the boy: he seemed intent on giving up nothing personal—nothing Gene could use to disable him, should the time to act ever come.
“Okay…” Mister Altair said, apparently also put off by the youth’s brevity. “Gene?”
Gene stood up. “My name is Gene Stephenson,” he said.
The other students fought to stifle the laughs brought on by his rigidity.
“Do you play any instruments?” Mister Altair asked.
“Not as of yet,” Gene said. “I learn quickly, however.”
“Oh. Well, do you… want to tell us anything about yourself?”
“While I would ordinarily not disclose information that could be considered sensitive to mission parameters, Captain Webb has informed me that all documents regarding Project Ascension have been deemed unclassified.”
Mister Altair raised an eyebrow. “Project what?”
“Conducted at the El Cazador military installation in the Mojave Desert, the United States Army sponsored the program in an effort to create living, breathing sentries who would be charged with safeguarding humanity from Neo-Sapiens, and other super-powered beings.
“After seven failed attempts to fabricate a living being possessing the genetic augmentation to stand against a super-human target, Ascend:08 and myself came into being. After completing our field testing, we were tasked with eliminating threats to national security. When my counterpart failed to return, the project underwent scrutiny from the Secretary of Defense, who ordered the project terminated.
“I was given the name Gene Stephenson, and at the urging of one of this school’s more prestigious alumni, Doctor Jason Lamperouge, I was enrolled in this school, where Captain Webb insisted that studying music would help to further my development.”
Mister Altair simply stared at Gene in horror; the other students looked to each other in confusion.
Eric nervously raised his hand. “Uh, my name is Eric,” he said in an attempt to overcome the uncomfortable silence Gene’s introduction had brought. “I don’t play anything, and I’m from California.”
“All right, everyone,” Mister Brown said as he strode into the classroom, “I’m Mister Brown and this is Algebra 1A. Let’s go ahead and get started: I’m going to go ahead and take roll. When I call your name, let me know what you go by, okay?
The boy with long, dishwater blonde hair raised his hand. “Matt,” he said.
Mister Brown made a note on his roster. “Cyndi Brightman?”
“She wasn’t feeling well,” her roommate said. “She’s still in bed.”
Mister Brown froze, looking down at the roster. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure how to-”
“I prefer ‘Ken Porter’,” said Matt’s roommate. The Chinese boy perpetually looked agitated; this moment was no different from any other.
“How do you pronounce-?”
“I prefer ‘Ken Porter’,” the boy reiterated.
“Porter?” Mister Brown asked. “But it says here that your last name is Cr-”
“I prefer ‘Ken Porter’.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t call you-”
“Put it down in your grade book as whatever you want, but while addressing me, why don’t you just make it easier on us both, and address me as ‘Ken Porter’?”
Mister Brown stopped for a moment, looking strangely at the roster. “Oh, my God!” the girl sitting beside him exclaimed. “How do you pronounce that?”
Ken rolled his eyes. “Can we please just move on?”
Mister Brown looked to the girl, then back to Ken. “Your last name… By any chance, is your father-?”
“Yup,” Ken said apathetically. “So, moving on?”
Mister Brown cleared his throat before continuing. “Mickie Daniels?”
Without looking up, Mickie waved her hand overhead.
“Derryl’s fine,” Derryl intoned.
A bored-looking girl barely raised her hand.
The girl next to Ken raised her hand.
As the tall, thin girl at the back of the room raised her hand, Aisha turned and looked towards Ken. “Hi,” she whispered. He turned, and took in the sight of her flirtatious smile. “I’m Aisha.”
“Ken,” he said warily.
“You’re Japanese, or some shit, right?”
Ken raised an eyebrow. “Chinese,” he offered.
“So, you’re like, super good at math, right?”
Ken shrugged. “I guess?”
“Well, what kind of grades do you get?”
“Miss Stein! Mister… Porter!” Their rotund instructor glared at them. “Is there something you want to share with the rest of the class?”
“No, sir,” Aisha said.
Ken simply shrugged. “She was just telling me that all Asian people look the same to her.”
As several of their classmates fought back the urge to laugh, Aisha fervently denied such accusations. “I was just asking if he was good at math,” she said. “In case I needed help from time-to-time?”
Mister Brown rolled his eyes. “If you need help, you can see me at the end of the day. If you still need help, we can always see about bumping you down to Algebra 1.”
Again, some of the other students tried to contain their laughter. Aisha said nothing more: she simply quietly glared at Ken.
After the shortened class, Aisha stopped the boy in the hall. “What the hell?” she asked.
“What?” Ken asked.
“Why’d you do that?” Aisha said. “Everyone probably thinks I’m a racist or something now.”
Ken shrugged. “Who cares?” he muttered, pushing past the girl. Aisha was quick though, and planted herself in front of him soon enough.
“I care,” she warned.
Again, Ken tried to get past Aisha; again, Aisha stopped him. “What’s your problem with me?” she demanded.
Ken sighed. “How did you see my name?”
Aisha’s eyes bulged. “What?”
“In class—when Mister Brown was doing roll call: you asked how my name was pronounced. You saw it, right? How?”
“It… It’s my power. I see things…”
“Like my name?”
“It’s complicated,” Aisha said. “Like… okay, when I concentrate on a person? My senses? Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste? They get overridden with that person’s senses. It’s like we share the same body, only I never leave mine.”
Ken glared at her. “So, when you were asking me about my grades…?”
She sighed in defeat. “I was feeling out for someone to cheat off of. Please don’t tell anybody.”
“Only if you promise not to tell anyone about my name.”
“No problem!” Aisha cheerily said. “Can—can I ask how that’s pronounced though?”
Ken flashed her a disgruntled look.
“Is it ethnic, or something?”
“I don’t like my name,” Ken said, “and I like talking about it even less.”
“I can see why.”
Ken shook his head. “It’s not… It’s not my first name I have a problem with. I mean, it’s bad, sure… but it’s my surname. It’s bad enough that some of the other dynasty kids know who my dad is, but I don’t want it getting out, okay?”
Aisha raised an eyebrow. “Why? Who’s your dad?”
Ken sighed. “He’s a Vindicator.”
“You know how America has two teams of Vindicators? The team that goes out and stops bad guys and gets on T.V., and the team that stays on Alcatraz—out of the spotlight—and makes sure the bad guys don’t run amok?”
“Well, there’s a reason I came in on the same plane from California that you did.”
“Oh. And you don’t want special treatment?”
“Something like that,” Ken said, stepping around her.
Aisha hustled to fall in line beside Ken. “So, which one is your dad? Salvo? Current? Coiffure?”
“Can we just drop it?”
“Because I kind of hate my dad.”
Aisha rolled her eyes. “Who doesn’t?” she asked rhetorically.
Ken stopped dead in his tracks. “You don’t understand: this isn’t like the rest of you… This isn’t… my dad didn’t buy me what I want or grounded me for staying out too late. I abhor my father. I despise him. I hate the man and all that he is, and the only ambition I have in this life is to end his existence, okay?”
Aisha was flabbergasted.
“That’s right,” Ken said, “I didn’t come to the New Vindicators Academy with the hopes of one day being recruited into the Vindicators—I came here to get strong enough to kill one of them.”
Unceremoniously scooping his text book, notebook, pen, and calculator into his backpack, John was on his feet not long after the bell rang. Slipping his arms through the straps of his bag, he spied Kim Forbes—a girl whose class schedule closely resembled his—doing the same.
Both of them impatiently looked to their friends: in John’s case, his roommate Dirk carefully returned everything to its proper place in his backpack; in Kim’s case, a shy, but fashionable, Asian girl. “Hey,” Kim said when their eyes met. “Walk us to Western Civ.?”
John claimed it was serendipitous that he and his roommate had signed up for four of the same classes. When classes began the next day, they found the same two girls in their first three classes.
Though John and Dirk parted ways come fourth period, the fetching blonde persisted in walking into every class John was enrolled in.
“Absolutely,” John said. “You, uh… you finding your way around okay?”
Kim smirked at him. “Well, after a year here, I’d hope we don’t get too lost.”
“Oh,” John said sheepishly. “Sorry, I thought you were freshmen too.”
As the foursome set off, Dirk stretched his arm past his classmates to hold the door open for everyone. It was a display that brought a smile from Kim, and a surprised look from Suzette. “So, you stretch, huh?” Kim asked. “Bet the ladies love that, huh?”
John couldn’t help but guffaw as Dirk looked to a visibly alarmed Suzette for an explanation. “I said the same thing! Dirk didn’t get it. He’s… sort of sheltered.”
“You keep saying that like it’s a bad thing,” Dirk complained.
Kim ignored him. “What about you?” she asked John. “What do you do?”
“I grow. You?”
“Nothing near as useful as stretching or growing,” Kim grumbled, “but pretty damn complicated.”
“Language,” hissed Dirk.
Kim seemed not to notice. “Suzette can climb up walls,” she said, nodding towards the more timid of the girls.
Suzette blushed. “It’s not that great of a power.”
“So, where are you boys from?” Kim asked as the group ascended the stairs.
“New Jersey,” offered Dirk. “Trenton, actually.”
“St. Louis,” said John.
“Ottawa,” said Kim, “and Suzette’s from Spokane.”
Rounding the corner, John spotted a pair of boys at the top of the stairs. Though they were both in his fifth period film class, he couldn’t remember either of the boys’ names. He wouldn’t have spared them a second thought had it not been for Kim’s warning: “Just ignore them,” she growled.
“Hey, Kimmy,” one of the boys said. He had a lazy appearance to him: an apathetic stare; his shaggy, black hair was unkempt; he slouched against the wall beside the door… “What do you say we skip next hour? I can take you places you’ve never been—and I mean that figuratively and literally.”
The other boy—dressed in a Polo shirt and with his head shaved down to black stubble—chuckled at his friend’s advances. “Nah, I think Kim’d rather skip class with me, and find out if the rumors about black men are true.
“Spoiler alert: they are.”
John shook his head. “Or C: you guys go eat a dick.”
The boy with the shaggy hair grinned as John moved to climb the next step. His foot came down on nothing; John tripped and fell face first into the grass. Startled, he looked around, only to find himself now lying on the school’s front quad. “Huh,” he muttered. “Well that’s… uh…”
Standing up, John made his way back to the school, only to run into Suzette at the bottom of the stairs. “What the hell happened?” he asked.
“It’s Abe,” Suzette explained. “His power lets him… I don’t know. He teleports people. Where did you go?”
“Right outside,” John said.
“Kim was afraid they’d sent you somewhere far away. She told me to go get the headmaster.”
“We don’t need him,” John said, dashing up the stairs. As he reached the floor he’d only just been forced to leave, he found Dirk coiling his body around Kim’s, suspending her in the air, over the stairs. “What the hell is going on?” John thundered. He looked up to assess how high the ceiling was here, then grew to eight feet in height. John reached out, cupping a hand under Kim and grabbing Dirk’s waist with the other. “What did you guys do to him!?!” he roared.
A look of alarm flashed on Dirk’s face. “John? What are…?” He looked at Kim. “What am I doing?”
He began to contract his body, setting Kim back down on the stairs. John looked up to the top of the stairs, only to find the two boys were gone.
Mister Himura appeared in the stairwell then, with Suzette hot on his heels. “What happened?” he asked as the bell rang, signaling the start of the second period.
“Greg and Abe, sir,” Kim said. “Abe sent John away, and Greg took control of Dirk’s mind—made him grab me…”
“Is anyone hurt?” the headmaster asked.
Dirk’s face was twisted with shock. “He took control of my what?”
“Greg’s an Esper,” Suzette explained. “His power lets him control people’s minds.”
“I don’t remember anything,” Dirk said.
Suzette nodded. “That’s how it works.”
“I think you kids should get down to the sublevel,” the headmaster said, “let Doctor Titus look you over before heading back to class.”
“I’m fine,” John said. “All they did was put me on the front lawn.”
“I just want to make sure Miss Forbes doesn’t have any internal injuries,” Mister Himura explained. “If you all will escort her down? I’ll send messages to your teachers before I have Mister Foster and Mister Chobanian called to my office.”
John nodded in agreement, then offered a hand to Kim. The four followed the school’s administrator back down to the main level, where they parted ways with him: as he headed down the hall, towards his office, they boarded the elevator bound for the second sublevel, and the infirmary there.
“So, what was the deal with those guys?” John asked. “Are they just the school dicks?”
“Language,” warned Dirk.
Suzette hung her head in shame. “They’re friends with our exes,” she admitted. “Last year, we started going out with these two guys… It didn’t end well.”
John frowned. “I’m sorry,” he said. Dirk echoed him.
“It’s not your fault,” Suzette said as the doors opened. She kept her head down as she walked, leading Kim up towards the nurse’s station, stopping only when Dirk reached out and grabbed her hand.
She looked to his hand, then followed it up the elongated limb to the boy smiling at her. “It’s not your fault either,” he said.
Suzette smiled, and continued towards the infirmary.
“You get the feeling those guys are going to be trouble for us?” John asked Dirk.
Dirk shrugged. “I get the feeling that I could have really hurt our new friend, and I want to make sure she’s okay.”
John nodded, and motioned for Dirk to lead the way.
The bell dismissing first period roused Cyndi from her sleep. With a yawn, she pushed the blankets aside, and lumbered out of bed. Garbed in a lavender chemise, Cyndi made her way into the hall and sauntered towards the bathroom.
She was halfway through washing her face when the bell announcing the next period rang. Paying it no mind, she moved on to brushing her teeth and flossing; finishing at her leisure, she returned to her room, and sat down in front of her vanity.
Her roommate’s possessions were visible in the mirror’s reflection, evoking a heavy sigh from her. Rising up, she snatched up her cell phone, and angrily cycled through her contacts.
“Good morning, daddy,” she hissed once her father had answered.
“Good morning, sweetheart. Did you sleep well?”
“No! My roommate snores, daddy! Snores!”
“Honey, I’ve spoken with the administration-”
“It’s been two days—two Goddamn days—and she’s still here!”
“I’ve asked about purchasing a private-”
“I want her gone!” Cyndi roared. “Honestly! She… Can’t you just… call her parents or something? She’s half-black, so she’s probably from a poor family! Offer them money to pull her out of school!”
“Honey!” her father cried, a hint of alarm in his voice. “You can’t say things like-”
“I’m sick of looking at her and her gently-used clothes, and her ugly shoes, and…” She seized a picture frame from Aisha’s nightstand. “And her stupid, skuzzy boyfriend!” With a scream, Cyndi hurled the picture across the room, shattering it against the back of the door. “I want her gone. If you love me, you’ll get rid of her.”
Hanging up her phone, Cyndi collapsed back into the chair in front of her vanity. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself, then rose up and went to her closet. After changing several times, she finally settled on a black and puce shift dress with knee boots. Satisfied by her wardrobe, she made her way down to the main level, and into the cafeteria.
The sounds of the kitchen staff cleaning up after breakfast hit her ears. Cyndi found it to be a travesty that they stopped serving breakfast at nine. Yesterday, she had cornered one of the cooks—a bulbous, unattractive woman with bags under her eyes—to plead her case regarding the kitchen’s hours, as well as the miniscule vegan alternatives they offered.
Unceremoniously, the woman had pointed out that the refrigerators housed beside the counter were stocked with fruit, vegetables, and other snacks. Still, Cyndi was relentless and continued even after the woman turned and walked away. Following her into the kitchen, Cyndi continued to demand both a scheduling and menu change—demands that ceased only with the intercession of the headmaster, who ordered her to class.
Cyndi walked into the cafeteria and made her way to the glass-door coolers. Opening it up, she took a banana, a cup of soy yogurt, and a bottle of water. Sitting down at one of the tables, she started to eat at her own leisure. Movement out of the corner of her eye drew her attention towards the doors, and to the handsome young man striding into the cafeteria.
He had short, light brown hair and an athletic frame that, despite that it was late-summer outside, was stuffed into a sweater vest and a shirt that matched his sky blue eyes.
Flashing Cyndi a roguish grin, the boy headed up to the door to the kitchen and poked his head in. “Hey, Miss Evans,” he said. “My dad got hurt on the job last night, and I only just got in. I think my blood sugar’s kind of low. I know the kitchen’s closed, but is there any chance I could get some French toast before I head off to class?”
From within the kitchen, Cyndi heard the globular, obstinate woman she’d clashed with yesterday tell him to go sit down—that his order would be right out.
Uttering his thanks, the boy left the door and made his way to sit across from Cyndi. “Hi,” he said, smiling at her. “I’m Jim.”
“How did you do that?” she asked.
Jim looked around the room, as if unsure what he had done. “How did I do what?” he asked.
“Get that bitch to make you breakfast after she closed the kitchen?”
Jim’s face shone with shock. “Well, for starters, I called her ‘Miss Evans’ instead of ‘That Bitch.’” He smiled teasingly at her. “Only her closest friends get to call her ‘That Bitch’, and, frankly, I don’t know her all that well.
“So, anyway, I’m Jim.”
“That woman was horrible to me yesterday. She absolutely refused to serve me.”
Jim shrugged. “It’s all in how you ask. Manners go a long way sometimes. For instance, when someone introduces themselves? It’s customary to reciprocate by telling them your name. Here, let’s practice: I’m Jim.”
Cyndi rolled her eyes. “Cyndi.”
“Cyndi Brightman, right?”
“I already have a reputation, huh?”
Jim shrugged. “We have Earth Sciences together… which, you would know, if you ever came to class.”
“I’m not much of a morning person.”
“It’s third period,” Jim said. “It starts at eleven.”
“It starts before noon?” asked Cyndi. “Then it’s morning.”
“So, what? You’re just never going to show up? Aren’t you worried about demerits?”
“What’s the worst that can happen? I get a warning, then a detention or two that I’m not likely to show up for…”
“The headmaster could expel you,” offered Jim. “Some kids got expelled late last year. I mean, sure there’s a wide chasm between habitually skipping class and putting a teacher in a coma, but still…”
Cyndi shook her head. “Yeah, they’re not going to expel me. See, they’ll talk about it. They might even use it as a bargaining chip. They’ll call my daddy, tell him that I’m about to be expelled, and then he’ll offer to build them a tennis court or a library or new computers or something, and they’ll magically forget all of my sins.”
“All the perks of privilege, huh?”
“You have no idea.”
“Oh, I have a pretty good idea,” Jim said. “You ever hear of Lodestone?”
“Yeah, he’s one of the Vindicators. Everyone knows him.”
“My old man. The first Lodestone? He’s my great-great-grandpa. Ever hear of Captain Canada?”
“Yeah, that’s my mom’s side of the family. Sure, we can’t really afford to build a wing onto the school, or anything… but here?” Jim spread his arms out wide. “I’m royalty.”
“And that’s why you get French toast.”
“Well, that and I’m polite, and treat the cooks like they’re real people… but mostly it’s the royalty thing, yeah.”
“Must be nice,” Cyndi grumbled. “This school is run by assholes: I can’t get breakfast after a certain time; my private room has someone squatting in it…”
“You have a roommate?” Jim asked facetiously. “What’s it like?”
Cyndi narrowed her eyes. “You have a private room?”
The door to the kitchen opened, and Miss Evans came out, carrying a tray for Jim. “I’m finding it hard not to hate you,” Cyndi told him.
Jim paid her no mind. Instead, he smiled sweetly and rose up to accept his breakfast. “Thanks, Miss Evans. You’re the best.”
The cook smiled sweetly at the boy, but wasted no time with words: she took one look at the disgruntled expression on Cyndi’s face and made a hasty retreat before the freshman could launch her next salvo.
“So,” Jim said as he began cutting into his French toast, “what are you doing Friday night?”
Cyndi tried to read his face. “Why?” she asked.
Jim shrugged. “Because I think you’re pretty, and I want to spend more time with you, and if someone hasn’t already beaten me to asking you out, I’d like to take you out. Show you the city.”
“I’ve been to New York before.”
“With your parents?” Jim asked. “No offense, but I was born and raised here. This is my city, Cyndi. I can show you so much more.”
“Why wait for Friday?” Cyndi asked. “What’s keeping us from going right now?”
“Well, for starters…” Jim popped a forkful of French toast into his mouth. “This is really good,” he said as he chewed. He swallowed the bite and smiled at the girl. “Plus, I really can’t skip third period.”
“What? Afraid they’ll call home and tell mommy and daddy you skipped?”
“They won’t have to,” Jim said. “My mom teaches Earth Sciences.”
Eric fancied himself a connoisseur of greasy spoons, and for his money, there was no better greasy spoon than South Street Diner, in Boston. He was a fan of their Cuban sandwich, in particular, but found Lydia, a redheaded waitress whose rear end Eric had been ogling for half his meal, to be the real reason he frequented this spot.
Dragging the last of his fries through the ketchup, Eric had cleaned his plate. He wiped his mouth with his napkin, and glanced at his watch. He had synched it up with the bells at school, so that he knew how much time he had, no matter the time zone he was currently in.
He left enough to cover his check and a generous gratuity for Lydia. He held the door open for a man who looked so much like Joseph Gordon-Levitt that he had to look twice. Shaking it off, Eric made his way down Kneeland Street and across his room at the New Vindicators Academy, to grab his bag. He turned and made his way towards the door, only to appear at the back of Missus Belcher’s classroom.
The woman gave a scream when he appeared. “That’s the second time today,” the woman said, holding her chest. “You have to stop doing that, Eric.”
“Sorry,” Eric said as he slipped into his seat. He looked up as the door opened, revealing Abe Chobanian.
As far as Eric knew, the two boys were not related. According to Abe, he had inherited his powers from his mother, who was born in Egypt. To the best of Eric’s knowledge, he had no family outside of the United States. It was merely a fluke that their powers were so similar.
The only difference, Eric had learned, was in their range. Eric was the stronger of the two—able to effortlessly jump across the country. Abe, meanwhile, seemed to have a limit of two miles, and that was a feat he achieved only by exerting himself.
The other students funneled into the room: Sarah Manther was a freshman from somewhere in the south, based on her accent; Marlon Winters was practically salivating as he held the door for Aisha Stein—behavior that won him a playful punch in the shoulder from his best-friend, Miles Lancaster.
When the bell rang, Missus Belcher, a skinny woman in her mid-thirties whose dark brown hair seemed perpetually pulled into a ponytail, glanced down at the class roster, then expectantly towards the door. “Well, Miss Brightman can just catch herself up when she gets here,” she said, launching into a lecture on the basics of physical and human geography.
It wasn’t long before the bell rang again, and Eric shoveled his things back into his bag. Standing up, Eric began to walk towards the back wall, only to reappear two floors above, in the back of his fifth and favorite class of the day…
Eric’s day began in the basement, for Music with Mister Altair. His second period found him in Missus Belcher’s room for his Area Studies class. Missus Reagan hosted him for Physics third hour, with a return to Missus Belcher’s room after lunch for Geography.
From two-to-two-fifty-two each day, Eric was in Missus Jenkins’ classroom, for Computer Sciences.
While they were only reviewing software and hardware basics—nothing Eric wasn’t already intimately familiar with—the syllabus promised that they would be digging into algorithms, Java syntax, Boolean expressions, and iterative statements. On the first day of school, he had stayed late to talk to Missus Jenkins, who revealed that in the second semester, they would dive into class hierarchies and interfaces.
Eric was having a hard time containing his excitement.
Eric liked computers. His parents had when he was seven. When he was nine, his mother remarried, and the family moved to Merced. His life was in flux. His family was in flux. Computers, though… Even through software updates and upgrades in hardware, computers were a constant in his life.
“Good afternoon, Missus Jenkins.”
The handsome woman looked up from her monitor to smile at him. “Good afternoon, Eric. How’s your day going?”
“I can’t complain.” Eric took a seat in the front. “Yours?”
“Just catching up on the news,” she said. “The Vindicators had a run in with Sanguine last night. She almost took Lodestone down before getting away…”
“Ah,” Eric said, feigning interest. He knew why his teacher was so engrossed in the story: though she hadn’t said anything, rumor had it that she was married to one of the Vindicators.
He’d heard that a few other teachers were the spouses of Vindicators. It was no secret that one of the other students in his Physics class—Luke Meinstein—was the son of Blitzkrieg and Missus Meinstein, the dance instructor. On Monday and Wednesday, Eric was in Fencing with Jim Loder, the son of Lodestone and the Earth Sciences teacher.
From there, it was just a matter of process of elimination. While it was possible that the woman was married to Orbit or Prism, he’d heard others say implicitly that it was Missus Jenkins’ husband who was one of the Vindicators. That left Oxidane, Simulacrum, and Torrent.
While to some, Oxidane’s inability to transform out of his liquid form would be the death knell for the theory that he was the woman’s husband, Eric could see it: during their orientation, Missus Jenkins revealed to her students that she was an alumni of the school. Back then, she was simply Addison Truman, a girl incapable of shifting back from her anthropomorphic bird form. Still, the world knew that Oxidane was Doctor Kenneth Bradley, the man who had led the Vindicators IV throughout most of the 1970’s: the surnames didn’t fit, forcing Eric to look to the only other possibilities…
Both the hydrokinetic Torrent, and the power-mimicking Simulacrum wore masks. Both men looked to be close to his teacher’s age. It was possible that either man had been her classmate, and that Missus Jenkins had met her husband here, at the New Vindicators Academy.
“Does it say if Lodestone is okay?” he asked.
Missus Jenkins smiled. “He’s fine. He’ll probably be on active duty by the end of the week.”
Eric fought to hold back a grin: he could see his opportunity… “There’s this kid in my sixth hour—Jim Loder? I heard he’s Lodestone’s son?”
Missus Jenkins sighed. “It’s not really something I can comment on. Every year, the headmaster gives us this speech on how we need to respect the privacy of the families of the Vindicators… He’s concerned with their enemies finding out that their loved ones are students or teachers here. He doesn’t want the school to become a target.”
“Has that ever happened?” Eric asked. “Has someone attacked the school to get at someone close to the Vindicators?”
“No,” Missus Jenkins said, “and I hope it never comes to that. Not every Neo-Sapien can claim nerves of steel as part of their set of powers. I get nervous enough worrying about my husband…” Her eyes showed that she realized her slip. Before she could back pedal, the door opened, and Natasha Kohlhagen entered the room. “Good afternoon, Natasha.”
“Hi,” the shy, bespectacled girl said. She looked to Eric, started to blush, and hurried into the nearest seat.
With the realization that he wasn’t going to gain any more ground on the identity of Missus Jenkins’ husband, Eric sighed and resigned himself to simply waiting for class to start.
Matt woke up and smiled. He had woken up in a warm bed, and a roof over his head: that sensation alone meant that nothing could dampen his day.
Once he had paused to drink in the fresh scent his blankets still had, he climbed out of bed, and put on a T-shirt. To say that summer in New York was blistering was an understatement, and Matt had survived it by wearing as little as humanly possible. He’d grown comfortable with not wearing a shirt, and on his first day, had been reprimanded by one of the teachers for sojourning down to the cafeteria for breakfast in nothing but his shorts.
This time of morning, few of his fellow students were awake. He had his run of the halls, and elected to use this opportunity to take a shower while there was still plenty of hot water. It was a sensation that he did not take for granted. For several minutes he stood in the stall, head bent and hands braced against the wall, letting the scalding water cascade over his back and down his body.
Matt ran a hand through his long, dirty-blonde hair when he had finished. Rather than use a towel to dry off, Matt took the hair dryer and brushed his body with jets of warm air.
Once his hair had been combed, Matt returned to his room. He whistled as he made his way back to the hall, only to stop outside his door, out of respect for his roommate. Ken was stirring as Matt opened the door, evoking a broad grin from the boy. “Good morning, Ken!” he said cheerily.
“Is it?” Ken asked, deadpan.
“Sleep well?” Matt opened their closet and picked out some clean clothes to change into.
Ken slid out of bed and glared at his roommate. “Is there any hot water left?” he asked.
“Should be,” Matt said. “I’m pretty sure I beat everyone else up.”
Grabbing his kit, Ken stumbled out of their room, and left Matt to finish dressing.
In minutes, Matt was making his way down to the cafeteria, where he greeted Miss Evans cheerfully. “Can I get some scrambled eggs?” he asked. “I had some yesterday, and they were, like, the most delicious things I ever had.”
The woman grinned as she loaded a plate with a double serving of eggs and bacon, which Matt fervently devoured. By the time the rest of the student body funneled into the room, Matt was on his second plate.
Once he had polished off a few cartons of milk, Matt made his way up to the first floor, where Doctor Himura’s classroom was. He was the first one into the room—beating even the headmaster’s wife to class. He took the opportunity to peruse his notes, looking up only when the door opened.
Doctor Himura held the door open for one of Matt’s classmates. It had taken Matt some time to get used to Doctor Himura’s appearance: her albinism was fairly unsettling, but today, he barely noticed. Today, his focus was on Aisha Stein.
Aisha was pretty. She had light brown skin and large, green eyes. Her long, light brown hair had a faint curl to it.
Matt’s eyes locked onto the strap of her bra, exposed by the over-sized shirt she wore off-the-shoulder. He was as oblivious to whatever the pair was talking about as they were to his ogling.
Between the beds, hot showers, full bellies, and pretty girls, Matt Baker found himself wondering where the catch was: the New Vindicators Academy seemed too good to be true…
The bathroom down the hall was probably packed. The locker room on the sublevel would be vacant—it had been last night, after all. If only the sublevel itself were as devoid of life, she might have considered it a viable option. As she dreaded another run in with Abe Chobanian and Greg Foster, fresh from a session in the weight room, Natasha Kohlhagen was left with only two options: change in her room, or sleep in her clothes again.
It wasn’t that she thought Heidi would be cruel—just that she was too embarrassed to strip in front of the freshman. She was afraid to reveal her pale, freckled body; her wiry frame; her flat chest…
Things had been so easy last year: when Natasha enrolled, there had been an odd number of girls, and she’d been given a private room. It was only at Natasha’s teammate’s urging that she had agreed to share her room with his little sister.
She couldn’t deny Miles anything.
“So, you’re almost done with your first week here,” she said, making an attempt at idle chit-chat. “What do you think of the school so far?”
“It was all right,” Heidi said. She cracked a smile. “There are some cute guys here. There’s this guy in my first hour class? Matt… So hot. Or in my film class, there’s this guy—Remington? Gorgeous!”
Natasha’s expression soured. “Remington’s on the same training squad as your brother and I.”
Heidi’s eyes bulged. “Oh. My. God. You could totally introduce us! Is he seeing anyone? Doy, Heidi! He’s got to be seeing someone…”
“I don’t think he is,” Natasha tepidly admitted. “He was going with this girl in our class last year, but I think she dumped him-”
“What!?!” Halfway through taking off her shirt, her exclamation was muffled by the blue striped shirt. “No way has a guy who looks like that ever been dumped.” Tossing her shirt on the floor, she reached back and unhooked her bra.
Natasha did not need help being reminded that this girl—a year her junior—boasted a bigger bust than she did: she was doing a fairly good job of that all by herself.
Dubious over Remington’s dating history, she didn’t notice her roommate’s face turning red. “It’s impossible.”
Natasha’s gaze was on the floor as Heidi pulled a baby doll tee on. Once she’d peeled off her jeans, she moved to the light switch. “You staying up?” she asked.
Natasha looked up and feverishly shook her head.
The room was bathed in darkness. Aided only by the moonlight slithering through their window, Heidi crossed the room and crawled into bed. “So, you’ll introduce us, right?”
With a sigh, Natasha simply pulled back her covers and climbed into bed, still garbed in the blouse and jeans she’d hastily put on this morning after Heidi headed for the bathroom.
She went to sleep dreading what tomorrow would bring: every Friday, sixth period was taken up by a school-wide training exercise in the Wreck Room. Even if she could avoid changing in front of all of the other girls, she still had to wear her form-fitting uniform in front of everyone.
She never dreamed there were worse things waiting for her…
The sun was only barely peeking out over the horizon when there was a soft knock at their door. Natasha’s hand fumbled across the nightstand for her glasses. She looked across the room; Heidi had pulled the covers over her head. A groan rose up from the younger girl when the knocking continued.
Natasha slipped out of bed and stumbled to the door. She opened it, only to be greeted by the headmaster’s wife. “Doctor Himura?” she asked.
“Can you come down to the Common Room with me, Natasha?” The albino woman’s voice was low, and dripping with sorrow.
“Did something happen?” Her mind raced over the possibilities. “Is my family all right?”
“They’re fine. If you’ll come with me?”
Natasha said nothing. Instead, she followed the woman down the hall to the living area where the students could relax outside their rooms. “Please,” Doctor Himura said, gesturing towards one of the sofas, “sit down.”
Natasha sat down, and waited patiently to find out what reason brought them together tonight. “Tonight, Missus Jenkins’ husband arrived home, and found her lying in bed. At first, he just assumed she had gone to sleep, but then he saw the blood on her pillow. There’s nothing official, but at the moment, it looks like an aneurysm burst in her brain.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Missus Jenkins is dead.”
To Be Continued... wrote:Enter: Ebb