Of all the places she thought being a Tomorrow Person would take her, this was not it. This was so far from being on, or even in the general vicinity of, the list; Irene had to pinch the tender skin on the inside of elbow to make sure that she wasn’t having the nightmare again. She used the hard tips of her nails, and jumped from the spark of pain. The skin turned red, then faded back to white, and she still questioned what the evidence told her—which wasn’t like her at all. From through the scratched wooden door in front of her—a relic of the worst of the 1960s if ever there was one—she heard the murmur and jostling of a crowd of people. A bead of sweat trickled down her neck.
“Now would be a good time to get that telepathy back, Quinn,” she murmured to herself. “Now would be a really, super good time.” She shot a glance up and down the hallway that was empty now, though someone was bound to come around the corner any second and see her standing outside the door with a sheaf of papers tucked under her arm, a pen clenched tight in her other hand, “and talking to myself,” she concluded out loud. “You really need to stop talking to yourself. Just because people can’t hear your thoughts anymore, that’s no reason to let them spill out of your mouth. You’re—” She sucked in a deep breath and stamped her foot, as if the action could tamp down the nerves that made her want to turn around and skitter away before something really awful could happen to her.
The stirring inside the room had an unmistakable tenor of restlessness, and Irene knew that if she didn’t face what was on the other side of that doorway soon, she’d have some hard explaining to do. And this was from the person who had been shot and had to come up with a cover story for the doctors and nurses in the ER while bleeding to death and in agonizing pain. It hardly seemed comparable.
She’d faced worse. She knew she had unobjectively faced worse. In fact, if anyone here knew the levels of worse she had faced down, they would think she was an exaggerating liar because here she was chickening out in front of a freaking closed door. Sucking in a breath, she gave one last glance at her slacks and shirt to make sure that she hadn’t spilled anything on them in the last twenty seconds, and opened the door to her section of Biology 101.
Forty kids were crammed into the room. OK, not kids because most of them were only by a year or two younger than she was. All the seats were filled. The rustling of impatience picked up a strain of confusion as the students twisted and turned in their seats, looking for an empty one that the late arrival could take. Irene hesitated in the doorway several seconds longer than she should have, taking in the giant blackboard that spanned the front of the room (a blackboard? Really?), the stained and chipped Linoleum floor, and the cinder-block walls painted in Institutional Yellow. This had to be a joke, someone’s warped idea of a prank on the new hire. Every classroom she’d ever been in as a student had nothing less than a Smartboard. She’d had computers and teachers who were wired to microphones so that everyone could hear them. Here she had… was that a VCR in the corner? Mounted to a rolling stand with a tube TV on top?
It was just for one semester, she reminded herself. One semester while she got herself back on her feet. Then she could apply for real jobs, ones in research laboratories where she could interact with people who already knew the difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Clutching her papers tighter, she crossed to the front of the room and to the table in the front that was obviously supposed to serve as both her desk and her lectern. Holding the now slightly damp papers to her chest like a shield, she turned to face her class for the first time.
“Hello,” she started. The first syllable squeaked, but the second came out more-or-less the way it was supposed to. “I’m Irene Quinn. Welcome to—” The rest of the sentence fled as she looked out at the rows of students sitting before her.
And saw Stephen, sitting dead-center in the front row, grinning back at her. He touched two fingers to his forehead in a casual greeting that also happened to cause the papers in her hand to ruffle as if a strong breeze had just passed through them.
[Stop it!] she thought, as hard as she could. She might not be telepathic anymore, but she knew that he could still read minds just fine.
Clearing her throat, she tried again. “Welcome to Biology 101. I’m your instructor for this course…”
“No way!” someone yelled from the back. “What’re you? Like, twelve?”
Irene peered through the sea of blue jeans and baseball caps. The heckler was a lanky guy with pasty skin, a patch of wiry hair hanging off the end of his chin, and a Rangers cap tilted sideways on his head. She already didn’t like him. She also wasn’t going to let him get to her.
A black girl seated next to him—her hair dyed a bright red and heavy gold hoops dangling from her ears—snickered.
“So, syllabus,” she said, choosing not to rise to the bait. She handed the stack of papers to the corner-most desk and started in on her carefully practiced summary of the course and her expectations while the papers made their way around the room. She knew that most of them would end up in the garbage before the hour was out, but at least the students couldn’t claim that she hadn’t given them one. Well, they could, and someone probably would, but she’d already thought of that and had posted a copy on the course website and had emailed one to each of the students on her roster.
Somehow she made it through the whole hour without completely giving away that she’d never stood in front of a classroom before. Even while working on her Master’s degree and PhD, she’d done all of her assistantship work in the laboratories, in part because the schools weren’t about to put a fifteen year old in front of a class. Since she’d never objected to the obvious discrimination, no one had felt the need to address it, which meant she’d gotten all the way to ABD status without having any more classroom experience than one gained simply from having sat in one her whole life.
While the class was shuffling out of the room, she snagged Stephen’s arm. “What are you doing here?”
“Taking Intro to Bio?” he answered, too fast, and with an exaggerated innocent expression that gave away that he knew what she was really asking. Irene crossed her arms and stared at him. After a second, he relented, “I’m a student here. When I saw your name on the course schedule, I couldn’t resist signing up. Why?”
“You know why. Ever since I left the—” She looked around the empty classroom and lowered her voice anyway, just in case someone was standing outside and listening in. “Tomorrow People. I haven’t seen any of you or talked to any of you.” She'd moved out of the Refuge before she'd finished moving into it. Instead, she’d found a room to sublet from an elderly woman who didn’t want to live alone and who couldn’t bear to move out of the house she’d lived in for thirty years. The place was tiny and it smelled of bleach and moth balls—and it was all hers.
“That was your choice, Irene,” Stephen said. “You didn’t have to move out. You know you could have stayed in the Refuge for as long as you liked.”
“I needed to get on with my life. Besides, you guys didn’t need me around, taking up space that a new trainee could use.”
“Are you seriously telling me that you walked away from having Ultra’s research facilities as your own private laboratory because you were afraid of taking up space?”
Irene’s eyes dipped down before she could stop them. The world class, cutting edge facilities that the Tomorrow People had inherited when they took over the Ultra facility were drool worthy. There was a time when she would have sacrificed anything to get to play in them. Then she found out that her willingness to sacrifice did have its limits and she had been forced to exceed them. And it turned out that hanging out in the place where her sacrifice had been dreamed up was not exactly the fun times she had hoped it would be.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Stephen said.
“Stop reading my mind!”
“Believe it or not, I wasn’t. There are other ways to tell what a person’s thinking, like body language? Come on, Irene, you now that this—” He waved a hand around the classroom with its buzzing fluorescent lights and windowless walls because it had been built during the height of the Cold War—“isn’t the life you wanted.”
“Yeah, well I didn’t get to live that life, did I? Or the one that came after it. I figure the third time’s gotta be the charm.” Irene swept an abandoned syllabus off one of the front desks and crumpled it into a ball herself. As she expected, the garbage can by the door was overflowing with the paper. Didn’t the students understand how long she’d spent over the last week crafting the work they had so casually thrown out? Why didn’t they care? How could the other instructors watch, semester after semester, as all their effort get casually dismissed by people who thought that merely registering for a class entitled them to pass it? Her new colleagues had all warned her about the differences between the kids at MIT and the ones at a Ju-Co, only reinforcing prejudices she had only suspected she had.
“Do you want me to drop?” Stephen asked. “I can find another section to take.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to say yes. Yes, she wanted him gone. Yes, she wanted all of them gone. If she couldn’t be one of them anymore, she didn’t want to be surrounded with reminders of them either. But when she opened her mouth, the word that came out was “Don’t.” She swallowed, tried to force her lips into the shape of the word she wanted, and then she was shaking her head in the negative. “No, don’t. It’ll…it’ll be nice to have a familiar face in here.”
For a second, Stephen looked like he was going to argue. With as many sections of the class as the school offered, finding a different one would not be a hardship. And maybe he’d be better off with an instructor who’d taught the class before and who had the slightest idea what she was doing. Junior college, she knew, was Stephens’s attempt to get to the life he wanted to live, too. He smiled, his body relaxing. “OK.”
Irene held up a finger. “But no powers. You are here to learn the material yourself, not to crib it from someone else. If I catch you reading anyone’s mind, including my own, I’ll—” She stopped, because she didn’t know what she’d do. She scowled. “I’ll flunk you. And then you’ll have to explain the F to your mother, take the hit to your GPA, and pay to take the class all over again.” She was gratified to see Stephen squirm and his face pale; she’d found the right threat.
“Academic honesty policy?”
“Academic honesty policy,” she confirmed. “I don’t have to explain how you cheated, just prove that you did.”
“Right. No mind-reading. Got it. Anything else?”
Irene glanced at the clock over the door with its round face and hands that clicked off the minutes in sharp retorts. She had an hour to kill until her next class. “Join me for lunch?” Realizing that that could be misconstrued as an abuse of power, the instructor asking the student to lunch, she hastily tacked on, “I don’t want to sit by myself on the first day; that’s all.”
“You know what,” Stephen answered, “I don’t either. Astrid went to NYU—traitor—and I really don’t want to hang out with all the other losers I went to high school with. I kind of had enough of them in high school.”
They both knew that Stephen could teleport over to visit Astrid any time he wanted, but the offer was nice.
And maybe Irene had missed the Tomorrow People. A little.
Irene walked into day two to find a significantly smaller class. Empty seats were scattered through the classroom now, and Irene glanced at the clock, certain that she’d simply arrived too early. She hadn’t. She was right on time.
Most of the remaining students were still faceless strangers, though there were a couple of familiar faces: Goatee boy, still seated in the back, and the red-headed girl, now seated next to him now instead of a seat kitty-corner. Stephen was also there, in the front row. He met her eyes when she entered and lifted his arm in what looked like a failed salute. On his left wrist glowed the soft blue light of a power-suppression band. Her open surprise made her steps falter, which caused a wave of chuckles to sweep through the classroom. Irene felt her face warm.
To hide her discomfort, she forced a bright smile. “Welcome back! I hope you’re all ready to take notes, because I’ve written down a ton of info…” She dropped the textbook on her table and then added the notebook in which she’d started outlining her lectures. The two made a satisfying thump...which no one heard.
Taking in the whole room for the first time, Irene realized that nearly everyone was bent over their phones, their attention completely glued to the screens that their fingers were poking and dragging along like real planes were going to crash or real ships were going to sink if they paused for even a second. She cleared her throat. Stephen looked at her curiously, and tapped the pen in his hand onto the desk.
“Well, I’m here to learn,” Goatee-boy sneered. He folded his arms behind his head and kicked his combat-booted feet up onto the empty seat in front of him. “If you think you can.”
Irene blinked at him, the incoherence of the challenge stymying her ability to retort. She waved her hands, trying to pull a response out of the air, then forcibly planted them at her sides when none appeared. How was she supposed to deal with this? No one had ever taught her about classroom management. For some reason, it had never occurred to her that she’d have any problems. In the couple of seconds she had for a flash-through of her own classroom experiences, she couldn’t recall a single incident of anyone acting out.
Goatee-boy let out a snort that shattered the tension that had been hardening between them. “Ah, I’m just kiddin’ ya, You’re like, Super-Nerd, right? That’s gotta be good for a few laughs.” It was supposed to be a joke; Irene knew that she was supposed to understand what he’d said as a joke, yet she could only feel insulted. The hard lines of his body suggested that his teasing was a test, and not the kind she knew how to pass.
She still had nearly an hour to get through. And that was just this class. Was she really supposed to do this nine times a week for the next four months? Well, she wasn’t going to quit now. Standing up straighter, she clapped her hands. “Phones away,” she ordered. “We have a lot of groundwork to lay about biology if—” Her gaze landed on Stephen, his power-suppressor band still glowing. He tugged the end of his sleeve over the thin metal band, then clicked his pen on. How funny that the future of humanity was sitting right there in her classroom and no one except her knew it. Maybe she could still lay some groundwork for the inevitable day when their existence became known to the world. It was still her world, even if she was on a different side of the line in that than she thought she was going to be. “—if you’re going to be able to understand where the world is headed.”
She heard another snort, this time from the red-head. Then came some grumbles, the clicking of phones being shut off, a cessation of the faint tappings of game play. A few eyes found hers, and she once again suffered a moment of word-loss at the expressions her students wore.
“I think they hate me,” Irene confessed.
“Why would you think that?” Stephen was quick—too quick?—to jump to his fellow classmates’ defense.
They were sitting in the school cafeteria, a room as artificial and cheerless as the rest of the building with giant squares in the school colors, now long faded, decorating the floor and water-stained acoustic tiles in the ceiling. The tables were crowded close, so Irene was forced to sit right next to Stephen so that they could talk without being heard. She poked at the desultory fajita in front of her. “Have you seen the way they look at me?” Those of her students who bothered to look at her at all seemed to seethe with a barely constrained contempt. Their faces were hard, their eyes unamused. She didn’t know what she’d done to make them so angry, or why they didn’t drop the class, but she could practically feel the waves of loathing coming from them.
She turned in her seat then and caught the student-worker behind the lunch counter glaring at her. Just as their eyes met, the student-worker picked up a tray of pudding cups and spun away. “Did you see that?” Irene asked, knowing full well that Stephen hadn’t. He couldn’t have because he was sitting with his back to the serving area. He looked in the direction she indicated, but it was too late. The workers were all immersed in their tasks.
As she turned back, Irene caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing near the door rip his eyes away from her and disappear around the corner.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” Stephen asked, his brow creasing. “You’re not suffering from, you know…” He picked up his bottle of water, twisted the top off, then put both pieces down without taking a drink. She braced herself from the question he was headed toward, mostly so that she wouldn’t punch him if he accused her of PMS. Stephen didn’t seem like that kind of guy, but people did keep unpleasantly surprising her. “Look, it’s just that some of the kids who had their powers removed are…different.”
Well, at least this suggestion had merit. She’d certainly spent more than a few hours wondering about that herself. “Jedikiah didn’t use the serum on me. My DNA hasn’t been altered. What he did shouldn’t have had any lasting effects. Besides taking my powers, that is.” And lasting effects? How was she to know what the power-removal would do? No one knew. That was the whole problem with experimental treatments. Which also meant that she had no idea how long it might take for side-effects to manifest, so maybe she was developing them now and just didn’t realize it. “What do you mean, different?”
“Not all of them,” Stephen amended, like he was afraid of getting caught in a lie. “It’s just that some…it’s like they’re sleepwalking all the time. They’re awake and functioning. They’re just not quite home, if you know what I mean.”
She thought she did. She’d certainly had her days back at MIT when that description fit, when she’d been awake for several dozen hours and had forgotten basic functions like how to align her limbs to allow for walking in a straight line. That was common sleep-deprivation and not even forced genetic overwriting. The problems she had now didn’t fit that description at all. Mostly they involved money and trying to figure out a new career. Friends would be nice, ones who didn’t know what she had lost so they could be more focused on who she was going to become than who she used to be. “The girl in the pink shirt sitting by the window,” she interjected. “She’s been staring at me for at least a minute.”
This time, Stephen turned his head slowly, as if working out a crick in his neck. “Do you want me to see what’s going on?” He pointed to the bracelet, and Irene couldn’t believe the respect he was showing by asking if she wanted him to use his powers.
“BOOM! Level 100. Oh, yeah!”
Irene and Stephen whipped around. Two tables over sat a heavy-set, heavily-freckled guy with shaggy brown hair. He pumped an arm into the air; the grin that split his face was pure triumph. In seconds, a crowd of people poured from the other tables and reassembled behind him, each person jockeying for a better view of the iPad he held in his hands and the game displayed on it.
“Oh, that,” Irene said, returning her attention to the fajita and the conversation in front of her. She shook her head sadly. “Angry Birds, Candy Crush, whatever this Balloon game is. It’s like people don’t want to use their brains.”
Stephen looked momentarily guilty, which probably meant that he’d played one or more of those games. At least he didn’t sit there in her class with his hands between his legs, as if that didn’t look suspicious. “Do you want me to look?” Stephen asked again.
For a second, Irene felt like she’d stumbled out of one universe and into another, because his comment didn’t seem to flow from what they were talking about. She breathed out, catching up. “Not right now. I’m probably just being paranoid. It’s not like everyone doesn’t know that there’s a regular Dougle Howsey here.”
“I don’t know. Some TV show about a smart kid who’s a doctor or something. The professors in grad school used to call me that. I never really understood the joke, though they seemed to think it was hilarious. You get used to it after a while. I guess.”
“I hate to break it to you, but you’re not a kid anymore.” Stephen gestured around the cafeteria. At every table sat people Irene’s age. The older students, the non-trads, mostly kept to the library or chose to eat off-campus where the food was better. “Most of the guys have no idea that you’re here to teach and not to learn, and none of them know anything about MIT or the path you took to get here.”
Irene took a big bite of the fajita. Biting through the tortilla felt like ripping through thick paper with her teeth, but the filling inside was delicious and she let the spices roll through her mouth, reveling in them while trying to figure out how much to let Stephen back in. Lunch dates were one thing, but did she really want their worlds to merge? “It’s different,” she agreed, at last. “I’m different. I guess now I need to figure out who this new me is.”
“You don’t need to do it alone,” Stephen pointed out. “You’re still one of us.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just a regular human now.”
Stephen stared at her for a long second, mouth agape. “Irene, there’s nothing regular about you.”
Irene couldn’t let go of that phrase for the rest of day. She’d always been the outlier: the youngest, the smartest, the tiniest, the female-ist. She worked behind the scenes during her years in the Lair and tried to analyze the genetic mutations that made up the Tomorrow People. She’d been one of the next stage in human evolution then had become one of the survivors, the rare group of people who’d lost their powers and yet retained themselves. Now she was just one of the legions of adjunct faculty at a last tier junior college, teaching an interchangeable class with interchangeable students. Or, at least, that’s how it felt this early in the semester when she still couldn’t differentiate the legions of blue jeans and baseball caps from each other.
The bus for the ride home was crowded, so she was forced to stand in the aisle. She was too short to comfortably reach the handhold, so she balanced herself as well between the seats as she could. The whole way she felt the other passengers’ eyes on her, though not once could she identify who it was. She was definitely being paranoid. But she had a right to that, didn’t she? She’d spent a year being chased by Ultra agents, participating in a literal underground resistance movement, having to hide, to watch her back, to guard her every movement. She knew paranoia and she knew watchfulness and she’d trod back and forth over the line between them. This felt different, though.
She got off the bus at the stop closest to her house. That still meant a two block walk in the waning sunlight. John had encouraged all the Tomorrow People to learn how to fight. Irene had, naturally, been more interested in working in the lab and trying to understand what they were so she rarely joined the others in the combat training. She knew how to throw a punch, but most of the rest hadn’t stuck. She could handle herself around a microscope and test tubes, and that’s all that had really mattered.
A rustle in the bushes startled her. She had her hand raised, ready to defend herself telekinetically, before the squirrel ran across the sidewalk and she remembered that she wouldn’t have been able to do anything to stop it merely by thinking about it.
She wasn't prepared. The microscopes and test tubes were gone—for now—and she'd never really learned how to live around ordinary people. As much as she wanted to think of herself as one of them, her instincts still hadn't gotten the memo. So, here she was, charged with teaching people she couldn't relate to material she couldn't remember learning without the skills that might have given her a chance. Stephen was right: there was nothing regular about her, and she didn't have the foggiest idea how to fix that.
The attrition continued as the first week rolled into the second and then into the third.
The confrontations and growing antipathy did, too. Her classes weren’t the only place. Irene’d also been noticing it from random people traversing the halls. She didn’t think everyone staring at her could be one of her students; she thought she should at least be able to recognize some of the faces by now. Did she have a reputation already? How could she have? The class had been nothing but lectures, not even a quiz or a test for anyone to point to and say, “She’s mean.”
The previous Wednesday, she’d caught one of her office-mates glaring at her over the top of her computer, and another clicked her tongue and visibly directed her attention back to her phone when she saw Irene walk in. Irene had been so unnerved that she’d raced through her prep, and then vowed to find another place to do her work. She had her own laptop, so she hardly needed the school computers.
Friday, someone had hip-checked her hard. “Think you’re so smart?” they asked, in a voice so filled with hatred that it took Irene a second longer to turn around than it should have. By the time she did, the assailant had faded into the crowd. She didn’t even know if it had been a boy or girl, student or teacher. Then there were the others who always seemed to be watching her: slowly, subtly, keeping an eye on everything she did and everywhere she went.
It hardly surprised her when she was called into the department chair’s office Monday morning. The Chair was older woman with with fine lines striping her oak-brown skin and webbing the corners of her eyes. She had been an honest-to-God hippie back in the day and prided herself on still being one, especially in her fashion. Today, that meant she wore a long skirt with alternating paisley and blue stripes and a brown blouse that looked like it was made of burlap. She regarded Irene over the tops of her bifocals, her fingers steepled in front of her. “There have been an unusually high number of drops from your classes,” she said, after a few empty inquiries about how Irene’s first few weeks had gone.
Irene waited, her lips pressed firmly shut. Inside, her thoughts rattled through her head like high speed trains. Was she going to get fired? Had she set her course expectations too high? Had she said something that she shouldn’t have said? What had she done? What was she supposed to do? She’d never been a failure at anything before. Is this what it felt like to be a failure? How could she fail so quickly? Her hands grew damp and she pressed them against her slacks in hopes of surreptitiously drying them. She didn’t think she was fooling anyone. Had she ever fooled anyone?
The Chair sniffed. On the paper-strewn desk behind her hunkered a computer monitor from the previous century. Streaks of parallel lines criss-crossed the screen in an ever cycling screen saver like nothing Irene had seen outside of old television shows. “Several of the students reported feeling uncomfortable with someone so…” She trailed off, as if sensing that whatever she said next had no choice but to be insulting. “Anyway, I thought you should know that we feel lucky to have someone with your credentials on our staff and we want to make sure your transition here goes as smoothly as possible.”
Irene felt her head tilt, though the last thing she wanted to do was give away just how nervous she was. God how she wished she could read the Chair’s mind right now, because something in the woman’s voice pinged as insincere. Maybe if Irene were just better at reading tones or body language; she’d never been good at figuring out what people weren’t saying. Somehow she’d done pretty well for herself growing up without powers, and now here she was without them again and feeling like she’d been dumped into a foreign country without so much as a handy phrase book. Relearning the old skills couldn’t be too hard, right? Right?
From the mess on the desk, the Chair pulled out a booklet with pale blue covers which she handed to Irene. “Finally, I’m aware that there is a great deal of new information to learn and retain upon starting a new job, so I had this printed up for you.”
The booklet was labeled “Employee Workplace Policies” and was little more than a hastily stapled together sheaf of papers.
Irene turned her confusion on that book and began to riffle through the pages. Most of the new hire material had been online, with her contract acceptance letter providing the link to the requisite web page. Reading the various documents had only taken a few minutes, though working through what the meant and how to reconcile the contradictions in them would probably take the rest of her life. She thought she had the basics down, though.
“I don’t understand,” she finally managed to say. They weren’t words she had a lot of experience saying; she had the creeping feeling that she was going to be saying them a lot more now. Already, she didn’t like the taste they left in her mouth.
“It’ll be best if you read through the book and save your questions for later,” the Chair answered. The dismissal in her tone was clear, and Irene stood up reflexively. She’d only been telepathic for a few years, and even the Tomorrow People still preferred to talk more than use their mind reading powers for day-to-day communication, so why did she feel so much like she’d completely lost the ability to use verbal language?
By the time she started to class, she was jittery, second-guessing every glance and gesture from the people she passed in the hall. She caught so many people staring at her that she ducked into the ladies’ room to make sure that no one had stuck a ‘kick me’ sign to her back. But, no, her blonde hair lay smooth, her teeth lacked any stray spinach, her slacks and blouse bore no stains or rips. “You’re just being paranoid,” she informed her reflection. “Remember, there’s no one hunting you anymore. No one’s after you because of your mad biology skills.”
Strangely, she was no more able to assess her own truthfulness than she had been her boss’s.
She splashed some water on her face, then patted down her hair with her damp hands. “Twelve more weeks,” she muttered. “You just have to get through twelve more weeks.” A deep breath in and out and she felt as ready to face her class as she ever was.
So it figured that she’d run right into Stephen as she stepped out of the bathroom.
“I need a favor,” Stephen said. The words rushed out of him as soon as he recognized her. He looked frantic, dark circles under his eyes and lines creased deep into his forehead. “And, yes, it’s … that kind of favor.” He shot a glance up and down the hallway, at the line of kids streaming through the classroom door, and the implied number of ears who might be interested in what Irene’s favorite student was saying to her now.
“You need to skip class?” she asked, hopefully. It couldn’t be that simple. Not when Stephen was involved. No one treated permission to skip class as a favor that they felt the need to ask for.
Stephen shook his head. “No. Well, probably. I probably should even though I don’t want to miss anything. Do you think I can get notes from someone?”
Irene thought about how difficult it was to get any of her students to pay attention. They all seemed to have their heads buried in their iDevices these days; if any of them were taking notes, she would be really surprised. “Sure,” she answered. She’d type them up herself, if she had to. With any luck, that was the favor Stephen wanted, but one more look at his sleep-starved eyes and she knew it wasn’t. “What else do you need?”
Stephen blew out a long breath. “Charlotte. I need a place for her to stay.”
“And you’re asking me? Why?”
“People broke into the Refuge last night and ransacked the place. We barely got away.”
A bunch of teleporters barely escaped an attack? That could only mean—
“Jedikiah?” She could barely get the name out. Simply trying made her stomach clench.
Stephen shook his head. “No. It was more like a mob. Just regular people. They were just walking down the street and then they stopped and came into the building looking for blood.”
She pulled Stephen back into the empty bathroom, where at least they could have a bit of privacy. The white tiled walls made every sound echo, including the whistle she heard as the door closed swung shut behind them. For once, she didn’t care who was judging.
“Is everyone okay?” These weren’t random people who’d been attacked. Cara, John, Russell…she’d lived with them for years, worked with them. They hadn’t always gotten along—what group of people always got along?—but they’d been friends and partners. She’d known everyone longer than Stephen had.
“Sure,” Stephen answered, a touch of sarcasm leaching into his tone. “Charlotte screamed and now there’s two women in the hospital with ruptured ear drums and unidentified mental trauma.” His lips spread in a mirthless smile. “Charlotte can take care of herself.”
“So, what do you need from me?”
“She can take care of herself, but she shouldn’t have to. She’s still a kid. We need to disband the Refuge for a while, until we figure out how to stop the attacks.”
“Attacks? Plural?” Why hadn’t he mentioned this.
Stephen nodded. “Yeah.” He cast his eyes down, studying the tile instead of meeting her judgement. “We’ve had a few incidents. Last night’s was the worst.”
What? How long had this been going on? She felt the questions piling up again, then squeezed her eyes shut and forced them to disperse. She knew why Stephen hadn’t told her: it wasn’t her business.
“Some of us are going back to the old Lair,” he continued. “Most of us are returning to our homes. Charlotte refuses to return to the Lair without John there and she doesn’t have a home to go to. She doesn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“You want me to babysit her?”
Stephen hesitated, his shoulders drawing back and his hands spreading in silent appeal. She knew that he had been banking on her good nature and the friendship they were forming, and she wasn’t coming around to the idea as eagerly as he’d hope. “I’d take her in, but with my mom being one of us…” He trailed off. He didn’t think he could protect her. Stephen’s mom was a Tomorrow Person, and Stephen was a synergist—the child of two Tomorrow People. If his brother Luca ever came into his powers, he’d be one too. That was a lot of power under one roof, which meant a lot reason that someone might be interested in coming after them.
“And because I know who Charlotte is and what she can do, I’m the obvious choice to take her in,” she concluded.
Stephen didn’t deny it. “If it’ll help, I’ll have her wear a suppressor.”
“No!” Irene’s response was vehement and loud enough to be heard out in the hall. “No,” she said, softer. “She’s been through enough. She knows how to control her powers now, right? Don’t take them away from her, not even temporarily.” The depth of her feelings on the subject surprised her. Here Stephen was with his wrist band blinking his helplessness at her and she saw that as respect, but the suggestion that Charlotte follow the same path felt like a violation. “OK, yes. I’ll talk to my landlady. I’ll tell her…I don’t know.”
“Tell her that Charlotte is your little sister. Your parents are getting divorced and she came to live with you for a while until the divorce is final.”
“Are you usually into sob stories, Jameson?”
Stephen tipped his head in mock humility. “The real story is a lot worse. At least this one, she’ll probably believe. I’ll let Charlotte know that you said yes.” He started to turn away, then swung back, a hand on her arm stilling her from leaving. “Also, I’m definitely cutting class today. I’ll meet you after your last one. Where? Down by your office?”
Irene nodded dumbly, sure that she’d just fallen for or been tricked into a duty she wasn’t prepared for. Since when had anyone cared if she was prepared for what life was going to throw at her, though? She had a lecture to give and a class full of game addicts to try to get through to before the first test. Should Irene’s students fail, then the school would know that she wasn’t doing the job they had hired her to do and, MIT credentials or no, they wouldn’t hesitate to let her go. When she left, she wanted to leave on her terms, because she had something better to leave for.
Somehow, Irene got through her classes. She had no idea what she said in any of them, much less if anyone had shown up to listen. Time elided the way space used to, and suddenly she was standing outside the school’s main doors, messenger bag being crushed against her under the force of Charlotte’s hug.
“I missed you!” Charlotte proclaimed. She squeezed harder and Irene felt her ribs bend. Irene couldn’t remember being this affectionate when she was twelve, especially not with an adult and in public. Charlotte was special, though. Having been raised as a captive in the Citadel, Ultra’s combination prison and research facility, she lagged behind her peers in every metric, from height to basic knowledge about the world to emotional maturity. She’d catch up; Irene had no doubt about that. What Charlotte needed was all the stability and trust she could gather around her, and though the Tomorrow People had never been able to promise stability, they always came through on the trust.
That was one of the realities of living with and amongst telepaths: You always knew where you stood, and you always knew that everyone could see the world the way you did if they wanted to. Charlotte had had enough people taken away from her: her parents, Errol, John. It was no wonder that she clung to the ones who remained, and now Irene understood why Stephen was so protective of her. Though releasing her into the social services system was the obvious solution for what to do with an orphaned tweenager, Charlotte was a Tomorrow Person, and that meant she belonged somewhere.
Irene wrapped her arms Charlotte and rested her chin, just barely, on the top of her head. Charlotte’s long blonde hair smelled like flowers, the scent that Cara had always picked out when she did the shopping. The scent brought on an unexpected wave of homesickness. “I missed you, too. Are you ready to spend a few days with me? And please let go of me because I really need to breathe.”
Charlotte stepped back, a guilty expression on her face. “I’m sorry. I promise I won’t hurt you again,” she uttered with the sincerity of a person taking a legal oath. She bit her lip, her pointed chin quivering for a long second, and then she threw herself at Irene again.
Breathlessness issues aside, Charlotte’s exuberance was nice. Irene hadn’t realized how much anyone had missed her.
The happiness of their reunion couldn’t disguise the other problems. With Charlotte in tow, Irene attracted more attention on the bus than ever before. The scowling, hate-filled stares took on a new menace, and Irene pulled the younger girl closer and wrapped her arm around her, as if the physical contact would protect them both. When they got off, they hurried down the sidewalk, covering the two blocks from the bus stop to Irene’s tenancy with the fastest strides their legs could produce.
Because of the speed with which the arrangement had been made, Irene hadn’t had a chance to clear the new addition with her landlord. Surprisingly, Mrs. O’Connell took one look at Charlotte, disappeared into the kitchen, and came back with an open bag of Oreos. “Family is the most important thing we have,” she said, waving both the girls to the kitchen table. She cast a lingering glance at the hallway wall and the display of pictures that crammed its surface. The people in them who still lived had all moved far away and didn’t come back to visit very often. With a start, Irene recalled that one of those people was a granddaughter about Charlotte’s age. She had another about Irene’s age. Was that why she’d been so willing to rent her extra bedroom to her?
“It’ll only be for a couple weeks,” Irene offered after Charlotte turned her attention to the cookies.
Mrs. O’Connell patted her arm. Her touch felt warm and dry, and amazingly reassuring after everything else that was going wrong. The expression that warmed her dark brown eyes held not the slightest hint of malice. Only on noting its absence did Irene realize how ordinary the look had become from those around her.
In juggling her classes and her new responsibilities toward Charlotte, Irene felt the days begin to slip away. The semester progressed; the first test passed. Getting through the day without some kind of altercation became increasingly difficult. And not just for her, either. Stephen reported more attacks: fist-fights, strangers stalking him or the others, people they’d been having ordinary conversations with about holding doors or paying for purchases suddenly turning mean. The tension was building toward an explosion. Irene didn’t know what was going on--no one did--but she knew it had to be stopped.
Her first breakthrough into how came the next day, though she didn’t see it for what it was immediately. Because Irene had no on-campus obligations, she and Charlotte holed up in their room with cups of hot chocolate and spent the day hanging out. Eventually, though, Irene had to get some work done, so, because Charlotte had nothing else to do, Irene gave her her iPhone.
Charlotte cradled the iPhone in her hands like it was an injured bird, gently and as if afraid that it was going to flutter out of her grip. The screen’s white light shone pale onto her face. “You’re really going to let me play with your phone?” she asked. The wonder in her tone made Irene push aside the notes she was trying to compile and stare at the younger girl.
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I?”
Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t know. Most of the others don’t have a phone and I guess the newer people don’t know me well enough. I think they were afraid I was going to break it. Are they easy to break?” She had on a t-shirt that Irene had stopped wearing when she got the job at the college; it draped over her tiny frame, making her look like a waif. One foot was bare, the other had a red sock hanging half off it. This was the girl who had the potential to be one of the strongest TP they’d ever seen, especially if she could harness her telepathic scream. None of the others had an offensive weapon like that. And, yet, she had never held an iPhone or had the chance to play with technology that most American kids treated as a basic fact of existence.
“They can be. I have a case on mine. I’ve dropped it a couple of times and nothing’s happened. I think you just need to be careful.” She moved to squat on the floor next to Charlotte and watched as the wonders of a touch-screen device revealed themselves to the curious child.
Charlotte’s fingers swept across the screen, opening and closing apps with a facility that belied her ignorance of iTechnology. She examined Irene’s music collection, listened to parts of a half dozen different songs, then closed the app and moved on to the photos. Irene didn’t take a lot of pictures, so there wasn’t much to see there. She opened the camera app and zoomed it around the room. Irene showed her how to switch the camera view, then leaned in to pose in a series of selfies with Charlotte. This close together, they almost looked like they could be sisters. At last Charlotte made it to the last page of apps; with a disappointed frown she looked up at Irene. “Do you have Balloon Busters on yours? I’ve heard so much about it.”
“I don’t,” she answered. Charlotte’s face fell and Irene gestured for her to hand the phone over. “I’ll get it. We can learn how to play it together. I understand that it’s kind of addictive.”
Charlotte smiled. “I think we can handle it.”
Irene started the download and glanced over the directions for how to play while she waited. It seemed simple enough. Burst the balloons in the right order to solve the puzzle on each level. Certain sequences of balloon popping would release bonus balloons that could be needed on other levels, so it wasn’t just a matter of getting through any one level, but of figuring out which balloons to use and when while working toward all the others. With all of this to remember, she could see why her students were unable to put the game down. It would be too easy to forget what you had saved up and the order you needed to release them if you kept having to put the game down to go do other things.
She explained the rules to Charlotte, who seemed to understand them as intuitively as she had the rest of the technology. As soon as the app was finished downloading, she handed the phone back over. “You go first,” she said. “I’m counting on you to teach me how the game works. I want all the secrets.” She eyed the notes spread out on her desk and decided to give them a little more of her attention before she got distracted with the game. It was one thing for her students to come to class unprepared, and another for her.
Charlotte crossed her legs and leaned back against the wall, getting comfortable. She looked so happy. What had she been doing at the Lair and the Refuge that the chance to play an iPhone game was bringing this much joy to her life? Had anyone realized how abnormal her life had been, or had they all been so caught up in their own survival that they’d forgotten to pay attention to the child in their midst? Irene made a mental note to talk to Stephen about that. While Charlotte was the youngest Tomorrow Person who had ever come to them, she wouldn’t be the last one. The others were going to have to figure out a way to deal with the children, the runaways, the abused—all the ones who had escaped from bad homes or had been kicked out, the ones who’d had their homes taken away or the ones who didn’t feel safe going back until they got their powers under control.
The textbook Irene’d inherited with her class was one of the worst ones she’d ever seen. Why the school thought it was worth using, and assigning to all its new instructors, was beyond her. The explanations of what terms meant were muddled, the drawings confusing. She’d caught four major factual errors in this chapter alone, which made it even more difficult to figure out how to teach the material. She could correct those errors in class, or she could teach past them under the assumption that the students hadn’t read the chapter anyway. Behind her, she heard the little “bloop” sounds the balloons made as Charlotte popped them and the gasps of breath and swish of Charlotte’s fingers across the screen. Irene was just puzzling over a graphic used to illustrate the main points of the next chapter—a graphic that happened to be printed in such a way that its information made no sense—when Charlotte cried out. The iPhone thudded to the carpeted floor.
Irene spun around to see the girl bent in half, her head cradled in her hands.
“What happened? Are you OK?” Irene fell across the room, unable to get to Charlotte fast enough.
Charlotte pulled her hands away and looked up through her curtain of hair. Her face had gone white, though her lips were red from having been bitten. Tooth marks still dented her bottom lips. “That hurt,” she answered, her voice as pale as her skin. “What was that?”
Irene picked up the phone. Balloons still bounced across the screen with the cheerful, fast-paced music that accompanied them tinkling out of the speakers. Level 10, she saw. That hadn’t taken very long at all. She thought, for sure, that Charlotte would get stuck on the first few levels. Vaguely, she recalled that the game had a social component where players had to ask their friends to send them specific kinds of balloons or popping devices. When was that supposed to kick in? Had Charlotte gotten to level 10 on her own because she was playing in single-player mode or because the social part didn’t start until you were too addicted to realize how much it annoyed everyone? She examined the phone for any trace of what had made Charlotte cry out, and found nothing. “Was the light too bright?” she asked, reaching for any possibility. She knew the sounds hadn’t been too loud.
Charlotte shook her head. “I don’t know. I was just playing and then all of a sudden my head hurt like something was stomping all over me.”
“Just your head?”
“Uh-huh,” she confirmed, rubbing at her temples.
Irene studied her, searching for more signs of what had gone wrong. It was a computer game, so it had no sharp edges and moving pieces for a finger to jamb in. Could Charlotte have been hit with eye-strain? Irene sometimes got headaches after reading too long, but that took hours and Charlotte had only been playing for minutes. Well, if she knew anything, it was about the need for data collection. “Do me a favor and try to keep playing,” Irene suggested, handing the phone back to the younger girl once more.
“It’s a fun game,” Charlotte answered, not seeming aware of Irene’s concern over the game. “Level 8 was really hard, but I figured out that it’s all about saving the yellow balloon for last.” She started poking at the screen again, manipulating the little graphics. The bright colors and vividly rendered graphics could cause eye-strain, Irene decided, if a person stared at the screen too long in the dark. A flick of her finger, and a whole series of balloons suddenly lined up and began popping—and Charlotte cried out again, once more dropping the phone to the carpet. At least the floor was carpeted, or that case might not be enough to protect the fragile device.
Charlotte was gasping for air, fingers curled hard into her scalp. This was not normal pain.
Tucking a finger under Charlotte’s chin, Irene lifted her head. Charlotte’s pupils were contracted to small dots, which they shouldn’t be given the lighting level of the room. Her young face was creased with pain. The symptoms weren’t much to go on—and Irene was hardly an expert—but it looked an awful lot like the effects of a Tomorrow Person trying to kill. What would have triggered that? There was no one else in the room, nothing that could be the target of an attempt.
This was interesting. And a little scary. Why would the game be triggering the part of the Tomorrow Person’s mind that prevented them from killing? Irene picked up the iPhone and watched the little balloons jiggle around. They looked so innocent, and yet it was already clear that Charlotte wouldn't be able to keep playing until Irene figured out what was setting her off. In an effort to distract her, Irene asked, “Why don’t we forget the game and go do something else?”
“What do you want to do?” At that age, Irene would have been thrilled with a trip to the library or a visit to the zoo. She checked the time; the zoo would be closing soon and she doubted that Charlotte knew how to get there, which meant they’d have to take the subway. The library had later hours, though she sensed that Charlotte could use some activity. Even teleporters needed exercise.
Charlotte’s eyes widened as she picked up on Irene’s willingness to do what she wanted. “Could we go to ice-skating?” she asked. “I’ve never been ice-skating.”
Charlotte shook her head, her long hair flying. “My parents didn’t like to do outside things. We had a snowball fight once when I was very young—maybe three? I remember it because I didn’t know how to make snowballs, so I kept trying to throw fistfuls of snow, and they’d fall apart before they left my hand.” Her brows creased as she relived the memory, her gaze turned inward. “I remember my parents laughing at me. My dad had the greatest laugh.” She stopped then, like she had forgotten that she was speaking.
Irene’s father hadn’t had a good laugh; it had been nasally and was often too loud. He also didn’t share it very much. His approval came in the form of slow nods and increased responsibility. Though, like Charlotte’s, her family hadn’t been much of one for outdoor activities, they had been big believers in lessons. Irene recalled lessons in ballet, swimming, surfing, tennis, basketball, and soccer. And ice-skating. None of the lessons had lasted longer than a season or two, just enough time for the Quinns to confirm that this activity, too, was not one their daughter had any talent in. Grace and coordination did not come naturally to her.
Then they had discovered her interest in science, and without a word, all the athletics lessons stopped so that she could attend Harry Potter summer camp, Sea World camp, and, eventually, college. She hadn’t seen her father since the summer before her last semester of her PhD. They had talked a lot about advances in cloning and genetic engineering and how the very basis of humanity would be coming into question. Ironic, as it turned out, because just a few months later, she telekinetically threw her PhD adviser across the room and discovered that she was a different kind of human than anyone knew existed.
And then she was running for her life from an organization that viewed her abilities as a threat and thought that the best way to deal with people who had them was to pick them off one at a time, arbitrarily letting some of them live with their powers stripped away, killing others, and recruiting yet others to turn them against their own kind. She hadn’t returned to her home or to her parents, hadn’t called them, texted them, or notified them. She’d shoved what belongings she could into her backpack and disappeared. Later, she had searched for them just to make sure they hadn’t been targeted too. She’d made sure her search was careful, done through as many back-channels and IP anonymizers as she could find, yet she’d spent the next week waking up with nightmares that her search had led Ultra straight to her parents. The last she knew, they were alive and doing well, and she hadn’t been able to bring herself to check ever again, just in case that her checking was what put them in danger.
“Can we go ice-skating?” Charlotte asked, her fingers touching Irene’s arm. “I mean, it’s OK if you don’t want to. We can do something else….” The speed at which she was backpedaling told Irene that she’d taken too long to answer.
“Yeah, I think we can.” Trust the kid to introduce Irene to an activity that she had within her repertoire, yet never would have thought to do on her own. Irene couldn’t remember the last time she’d done anything so simply touristy. She’d found her way to New York City like all the other Tomorrow People who’d been called in, which mean she’d arrived scared, hungry, and short of cash. Then John had found her and brought her into the Lair and the opportunity to go hang out in the city she now lived in never manifested. “My lesson plans can wait until we get back tonight. I think you and I could both use a little fun.” A few seconds of searching turned up a place not too far away. She googled the address, studied the map, then tried to work out the best way to get there. Charlotte leaned over her shoulder to look at the map too, a studious scowl on her face.
“I know how to find that. Do you want me to teleport us?” Charlotte asked, at last. Though the question appeared innocent, a tenor to it gave away that she was worried about Irene’s response. Had she been warned not to use her powers around Irene?
It was tempting to turn down the offer, to suggest that they walk or figure out the bus route. Charlotte could use some instruction in how to get herself around the city in situations when her powers wouldn’t or couldn’t be used. But Irene thought about the people on the bus, the ones who had looked at them with such malice. Perhaps it was best to limit how much time they spent in transition.
“Sure,” Irene answered. She hadn’t teleported in so long. Would it feel different now that she couldn’t do it herself? She was surprised at how nervous she felt. What if the teleport didn’t work? What if Charlotte wasn’t any good at it and ended up dumping both of them into the street? What if she let go or slipped out of Charlotte’s grasp and ended up getting caught somewhere that was neither here nor there. She had no idea how teleporting worked—none of them did—and the physics was too advanced for her to give more than a passing nod to, yet there had to be an in-between because, well, she didn’t really know why. There just had to be. And she didn’t want to get stuck in it. And what if teleporting as a non-teleporter hurt?
Before she could talk herself into risking the bus, she grabbed her coat, found an extra sweatshirt for Charlotte to wear, and held out her hand for the girl to take. “Let’s go. One ice-skating trip, coming up.”
Charlotte’s fingers closed tight around hers and they disappeared.
They arrived in the parking lot outside the ice-skating rink, appearing between two cars with only the smallest puff of air. The breeze of an autumn day cooling into night brushed over their faces, bringing with it the faintest hint of snow in the near future. Irene let out her pent up breath, relieved that she’d both arrived safely and without any pain. Next to her, Charlotte was peering around the front of the cars, presumably scanning for people who might question where these two girls had come from.
“The coast is clear,” she finally decreed. Then, with a tilt of her head, “What does that even mean? What coast? And how can a coast be clear? Aren’t they usually dirt colored?”
Unable to help it, Irene dropped her head back and laughed. “It’s a nautical idiom,” she said, around chortles that sounded an awful lot like her father’s.
“What does that mean?” Charlotte demanded, at the same time pulling her toward the arena that she had now spotted at the far end of the parking lot that was about half-full, mostly with compact cars of the kind favored by people who were very concerned about their carbon footprints.
“It means that you were using the term right, considering that we’re not sailors on a boat, scouting for dangerous enemies on a land we’re about to invade.”
“Oh,” Charlotte replied, clearly not understanding, but probably also beyond caring. They entered the arena and found the registration desk right in front of them. Charlotte’s eyes went wider at seeing the rows of skates on the wall behind the clerk than they had on seeing the iPhone. As long as they didn’t break any bones, Irene decided that this had been a good choice. They got their skates, with only a little confusion as they tried to figure out what Charlotte’s shoe size was, and Irene showed Charlotte how to put the skates on.
Soon Charlotte was taking her first stumbling steps across the rubber floor mat, balanced on the thin blades. “This is so weird! Look at how hard it is to stand up!” She threw out her arms and wobbled, delighting in the unfamiliar contact with the ground.
“Wait until you get out onto the ice,” Irene answered. “Just, take it slowly because your powers aren’t going to help you here.”
Charlotte nodded, though she wasn’t really listening. Her concentration was on keeping her feet from buckling outward and her body from pitching forward.
Rock music pounded down from the speakers, filling the whole arena and making the walls vibrate. It was exciting. Irene felt her heart picking up speed and an urge to dance spread through her. Her legs twitched with the need to pick ‘em up and put ‘em down. She tentatively stepped onto the ice, and immediately felt her feet slip out from under her. Her arms flailed out and her body fell backwards. There was no way to stop her head from slamming into the hard ice.
And then she felt her fall slow until she came to a stop with only the gentlest bumps. Charlotte stumbled up next to her and held out a hand. “Come on! We just got here. You can’t give up now.”
As Irene lay there, the cold seeping through her sweatshirt, she reflected on the truth of those words, and how much easier her life would be if she could just learn to keep her balance.
“Have you ever played Balloon Busters?” Irene descended on Stephen the second class was over before he'd even closed his notebook.
“Huh? No, why?” He dropped his pen into the pocket of his backpack and swept the rest of his books into a loose pile, standing in the same motion.
“But you’ve heard of it, right?” She vaguely recalled talking to him about the game once before, not that she expected him to remember a passing comment in the midst of much more important topics.
“Sure. Who hasn’t? I’ve had to listen to Luca whining about not being able to clear level 87 for the last week.”
Irene was about to press on to her next planned question, and this new information threw her off. “Luca plays?”
“Constantly,” Stephen replied. “Every second he can find, he’s pushing those stupid balloons around. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s only pretending to go to basketball practice these days.”
“He’s a little addicted?”
Stephen snorted out a laugh. "You can say that again."
The opportunity was too good to resist. "He's a little addicted?" Irene repeated, trying to replicate the exact same inflection she'd used the first time.
For a long second, Stephen stood, one hand raised in front of him as if he'd been frozen before he could make the down beat on an orchestra. Then a grin cracked his face. “Just like everyone else. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten into it, huh?” He nudged her, just a little push to shake loose the secret of her frivolous behavior.
Irene swatted him away and shook her head. “I have some more interesting puzzles to work on. So, I’m kinda going to need you to give the game a try.”
Stephen’s brow furrowed. “Didn’t we just agree that it’s a waste of time? Where are we going?”
Rather than heading toward the cafeteria for their usual after class lunch, Irene had taken Stephen down the hall toward a classroom that she knew was empty this hour. Ushering him in, she closed the door, but left the lights off. The sunlight that came through the high-set windows streaked across the room, providing just enough light for them to see by. “Try to make it to level 10,” Irene said, handing over her phone.
“Why do you want me to do this?”
“For science,” Irene answered. She never tired of using that phrase. What other reason could ever be good enough?
Obligingly, Stephen dumped his stuff on the teacher’s table and, leaning against it, opened the app. It took him a few minutes to read through the directions. Irene tried to constrain her impatience, yet soon found herself meandering around the room: she picked up a piece of chalk, moved it four feet down the chalk tray and set it back down, rubbed out a smudge on the board, then moved to sit in one of the desks, only to rise again immediately.
“Do you mind?”
“Sorry,” Irene said, an empty apology if ever there was one. She couldn’t hold still. If Stephen was able to play the game, that would destroy her nascent hypothesis. Not that she had any idea what was going on or how, or if, the pieces fit together, but wasn’t that how discovery started? She gnawed on the tip of her thumbnail and tried not to stare at Stephen, who had the tip of his tongue sticking out between his lips as he tried to solve the lower level puzzles. Though he was smart, she couldn’t expect him to conquer even the easy levels on the first try. That Charlotte had figured it out so fast was amazing.
Just as she gouged a crease in her nail, Stephen keeled over. His grunt of pain was a loud retort through the room, and her phone clattered to the floor. Irene stopped chewing, a new feeling taking over the worry that had consumed her.
“What the hell?” Stephen grunted. “What was that?” He made a vise of his arms, hands clasped behind his head, and squeezed his head between them while the pain slowly faded away.
Irene slid off the desk to retrieve her phone, moving slowly and deliberately to give Stephen a chance to recover before she filled him in. Though a quick inspection showed that the phone's case was still doing its job, she made a mental note to get another phone just for using as a test prop, if she was going to keep expanding her TP sample size. Eventually her own was going to get cracked if she kept this up. “I’m only working with a sample of two at this point, though it’s a 100% result, so it’s hard to say for sure, but it looks like Tomorrow People can’t play the game because it sets off your Prime Barrier.”
“The thing that stops Tomorrow People from killing. I needed to call it something besides thing-that-stops-Tomorrow-People-from-killing, so that’s what I came up with. Total flash of inspiration. What do you think?”
He mulled the idea, his teeth still grit in pain. “It’s no worse than any of our other names for things, I guess. Wait, you think our minds think that the game is making us kill?”
She could see him struggling to figure out how that could work, a struggle made all the more difficult because of the vestiges of pain impeding his thoughts. If only she had the same kind of clear and practiced answer she could give him about this that she had to give about questions like "how do cells divide?"
“I don’t know what your minds think. All I know is that you can’t play this game. Have you had trouble playing other video games since you got your powers?”
“No. Luca and I used to play Grand Theft Auto and Halo all the time.”
“And it’s Balloon Busters that’s causing problems,” Irene summed up. “I know. It doesn’t make any sense. Charlotte couldn’t play either. Let me guess? Level 10.”
“It sounds like you know what’s going on.”
“Nope,” Irene replied, a little too cheerfully. “All I know is that, two for two, TP can’t play the game. Incidentally, I can and so can Luca, so there’re no restrictions on the once or future TP.”
Stephen glanced down at the suppressor band that still glowed on his arm; he hadn’t had chance to remove it yet. “Not being able to use my powers didn’t save me, either. Why would someone design a game that sets off the..." He dragged the syllables of the phrase she'd used out of his memory slowly. "Prime Barrier?”
“It’s interesting that you asked that,” Irene answered. “Because there’s really only two options: 1) they didn’t. It’s an accident in the way the game is programmed and, because none of the programmers were TP, they had no way to know about it or know to fix it.” She drew a deep breath, because the second possibility was the one she was leaning toward, and the one that was the most frightening. “2) They did it on purpose because the programmers know about the TP and want to hurt you.”
“That’s one way to do it,” Stephen agreed.
Irene empathized. She had only experienced what the game had done to Charlotte and Stephen once, early in her training. John had pushed her and pushed her until she got angry enough to lash back. Angrier even than when she’d discovered that her PhD advisor was stealing her work and publishing it as his own. She’d turned on John with the staff he’d been training her with, and discovered the hardest way of all that Tomorrow People can’t kill. John didn’t know why; none of the other TP she’d encountered knew why. Even Jedikiah didn’t know why. Evolutionarily, it didn’t make any sense and was kind of a stupid mutation to get bundled in with a bunch of really cool powers. Though, when she thought about it, she realized that maybe it was an accident of the mutations that caused the powers and not an add-on, like maybe it wasn’t about the Tomorrow People not being able to kill and more about the powers with the inability to kill bundled into the package, because that’s the way mutations worked; change one gene and it could have cascading and unexpected effects on others. What she had really taken from the experience was that, with her new powers, trying to kill hurt in way that she’d never thought was possible before. It was a pain so extreme that no amount of discipline could teach someone to fight their way through it. The only way to disable the Prime Barrier, it turned out, was the intense drug therapy and brain damage that John had subjected himself to, and that killed more than 98% of the other Tomorrow People who’d tried it.
And here someone was triggering it on purpose.
The real question was why, because so far the Tomorrow People were all simply avoiding the game. If the purpose was to hurt, then people had to play it and subject themselves to getting hurt, and that simply wasn’t happening--which made her think that there might be a third possibility that she couldn't yet see.
Then there was the question of the other players. “Has Luca changed in any way?” she asked.
“You mean besides getting addicted to a stupid iPhone game and holding a constant grudge against me because someday he’s going to have powers, and somehow it’s all my fault?”
“Yes, besides that.”
Stephen thought about it for a moment, his fingers still idly rubbing his temples. “Nah. He’s just Luca.”
“OK, next question and I need you to answer it seriously: Have I changed over the last couple of weeks?”
Stephen shook his head. Irene nailed him with her best teacher look, but he just grinned back at her. “Besides being stressed out about the class, I haven’t noticed anything.”
“You’re noticing me being stressed out?” she asked, suddenly alarmed that her lack of experience was showing and that her students were all going to give her a bad evaluation because they knew that she had no idea what she was doing. Well, assuming that any of them looked up from their games long enough to realize that she was trying to teach them biology.
“Like I’m one to talk,” Stephen replied. “You’re having to learn how to run a class and I’m having to learn how to run the Tomorrow People. Everyone has to start learning somewhere, right? Besides, I’d say you have plenty of reason to be stressed out and you’re doing a great job pretending that you’re not.”
“OK.” She wanted to plumb this line of inquiry more, but teaching evaluations weren’t going to mean much if she couldn’t solve the bigger problem of the game. She didn’t know how, but she knew it had to be connected to the strange things that had been going on: the hate-filled looks, the threats, the people lashing out at each other for no apparent reason. “All right, so Luca’s not affected. You said he’s up to level 87, right?”
“At least. I’m pretty sure he’s still stuck on it.”
“I made it to 11 without any effect. The game’s kinda boring, though, so I’m going to recuse myself from playing unless I absolutely can’t find the data I need. Do we know any other people who used to be Tomorrow People and aren’t anymore?”
Stephen’s face darkened. “A few. I don’t think they’d want to hear from us, though.”
Irene thought about that. With as badly as she’d wanted to cut ties with the Tomorrow People after losing her powers, she could understand those who had left on worse terms being even more reluctant to step forward to help them. So many had left under threat of Ultra killing them if they told. How many of those victims knew that Ultra was done and the threat no longer bound them? How long until someone spilled their story of what happened to them? And what would happen if someone believed them?
Was the game related to that? Could an ex-TP have designed the game to lash out at those who had what they no longer did?
“I guess I don’t need this on any more,” Stephen commented. He pulled the band release tool from his backpack and popped off the suppressor bracelet. Its light dimmed to nothing as it fell into his hand and he stretched, his whole body loosening up as he regained the freedom to use his powers. Did he know how much he’d come to accept them as part of himself?
Had her loss crowded her in like that? Was that the real reason she had landed in a community college?
A rush of air sent her hair flying and interrupted her thought spiral. When the breeze settled, Charlotte stood in the middle of the room, peering around like she didn’t know where she thought she’d end up. On seeing who else was in the room, her face immediately lit up. “Stephen!” She barreled toward him; her sudden weight toppled him off the desk.
“Hey, Charlotte!” If his expression was anything to go by, he was just as happy to see her as she was to see him. “What’re you doing here?”
“I was looking for Irene. She said to meet her for lunch. It’s lunch time, right?”
“It is. Do you mind if I join you today?” Stephen asked, a lilt to his voice giving away that he already knew her answer.
Charlotte squealed. “How’re you? How’s Cara? How’s Russell? I’ve missed everyone so much.”
“They’re fine,” he answered. “They’re counting the days until we can all be together again.” Over Charlotte’s head, Stephen widened his eyes in a silent plea for help. Charlotte didn’t know how bad the ongoing situation with the other TP had become, and Stephen didn’t want her to. If he could do nothing else, he wanted to protect her from that bit of worry.
“We should get out to the cafeteria before the line gets too long,” Irene suggested. To Stephen, she mouthed, “Later.” He gave a slight nod. “What do you want to eat? We have all the good stuff. Pizza, hamburgers, corn dogs, you name it. And then there’s the desserts to think about. I've never tried the ice-cream here, but I see people eating it all the time, so it must be pretty--”
She opened the door. On the other side stood a mob, at the front of which was the student who had challenged her on her first day—Josh, she now knew. He had on the ever-present jeans, t-shirt, and baseball cap—an astoundingly normal uniform considering the expression of pure hatred that twisted his face. He had a gun pointed at her.
“It is you,” he spoke. “I thought it was. You’re the one who’s ruining everything. You and—”
“Josh, no, you don’t have to do this,” implored the red-head—Terry—who stood next to him, hands up to protect herself in case he turned the gun on her.
That was all Irene had time to see before Stephen grabbed one arm, Charlotte grabbed the other, and they teleported.
They landed in a place that Irene thought she would never see again. The command room of the Lair looked smaller than she remembered it. The table that had once been piled high with John’s projects now stood empty. The place felt empty, neglected. When the Tomorrow People had moved out of the Lair and into the Refuge, they had gone quickly, and thoroughly, taking everything they needed, and nothing that they did not. It looked like when they'd moved back, they'd kept their footprints light and their bags packed.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” Tim asked. His light came on. With it, the screen that banked one wall of the command center sprang to life with a thin pop and the high pitched whine of electronics warming up. “Is that you, Irene?”
“Hello, Tim,” she greeted. What was she supposed to say next? It’s good to see you? I missed you? Both were true, but Tim was a computer. She could access him and his facilities at any time and anywhere she wanted. That she hadn’t was beside the point.
“One of Irene’s students tried to kill her,” Stephen stated. Letting go of her, he stepped back and ran an appraising eye down her body. The gun had never fired, so she was fine, if a little shaken. He looked shaken, too. Considering that the last time she’d been shot, he’d been the one who carried her bleeding body to the hospital, she wasn’t surprised.
“Just now?” Tim asked.
“Yes,” they all responded at once. “Just now.” Irene, Stephen, and Charlotte all looked at each other, amused at the perfect overlap of their words. Irene felt her mouth widening, a chuckle building in her chest. It was cut short with Tim’s follow-up.
“That cannot be a coincidence." He dropped into silence, broken only by the whir of his fans. No one dared interrupt, knowing that he'd answer their unspoken question as soon as he could. A moment later, the lights in the command center shut out. "You need to see this. As usual, I have been monitoring the news feeds…” In lieu of a verbal explanation, he brought the television to life. Unlike nearly everything else, it hadn’t been moved out, perhaps because it was so big. Or perhaps because, by Ultra standards, it was so antiquated that there was no point in taking it. The images it displayed, a mix of black and white and color, grainy video quality and sharp, that came into view didn’t make sense at first. They were too complicated, with too much movement.
“Where’s that?” Charlotte asked, at last.
“Everywhere,” Tim responded. “I have news footage from several major US cities and cell phone images from smaller towns across the country.”
“Only the US?” Stephen asked.
“I am only showing you the images in the US,” Tim answered.
Riots. Mobs. That’s what Irene was seeing. Images of people fighting
She forced herself to find one section to look and focus on it, rather than trying to take in the whole mess. In the section she chose, the video was jittery and grainy, yet she could see that, in some place with palm trees in the background, easily two dozen people brawled. Fists swung, legs kicked, and bodies crashed. Irene took a step closer to the screen as if that could bring her closer to any of the places and a clearer understanding of what was happening.
“What’s this about, Tim?” Stephen asked.
“Roughly twenty minutes ago, fights began to break out around the world. As far as anyone reporting in can tell, there was no cause in any of the situations.”
The screen froze, then one of the segments started to grow in size until it took over the whole picture. The cameras showed a mob of people in Times Square shouting and brawling. Police cars had surrounded and cordoned off the intersection, which hadn’t stopped drivers from pulling right up to the cordons and honking as if that would be enough to make the crowd disperse.
Tim rewound the relevant video and played it back. A newscaster stood in front of the camera with an open-mouthed stare on her face and a dangling microphone in her hand. “What’s going on?” she asked. Suddenly realizing that the camera was on and filming, she stumbled through her name and identification, then trailed off with a shake of her head. “It was a farmer’s market,” she said. “We were covering a farmer’s market and then, all of a sudden, everyone started fighting.”
Irene saw the vestiges of booths and tables—most of which had been knocked over and smashed—strewn through the crowd. Thrown food was smeared down the walls and across the windows, the destruction overshadowed by the video screens and billboards that made Times Square so recognizable. Sirens cut through the air, forcing the reporter to yell her baffled questions. Near the edge of the crowd, where one person could still be distinguished from another, a man picked up a stroller with its toddler still strapped inside, and raised it above his head as if to smash it to the ground. The mother screamed and reached for her child. Everyone could see how this was going to end.
Then, without so much as a shouted cry or a puff of smoke, the crowd stopped fighting. They just stopped. The man lowered the stroller back to the street with no apparent awareness of what he’d been about to do. He mumbled something to the mother, turned, and meandered away. Everywhere people returned to their shopping, oblivious to the fact that the stands were all so much kindling. EMTs rushed through the cordon to pull out those who hadn’t been lucky enough to avoid being trampled or thrown.
The clip ended and Tim cut back to the live feed and the reporter, still on the scene and now much more composed. “In what some are already calling a flash mob gone wrong,” she stated, “Times Square held host to a full-scale brawl that lasted… how long did it last?” She paused, waiting for the answer to come. When it did, her eyes widened. “Sixty seconds exactly.” Another pause. “Really? Someone was clocking it?” She looked back over her shoulder at the selection of screens and cameras that made this location one of the most well-recorded ones on the planet. “OK, I guess several people were clocking it. It’s now been verified that the event took exactly sixty seconds. So far, no one has claimed credit for organizing this act of destruction.” Lowering her microphone, she murmured, “Well, I know I sure wouldn’t.”
“Tim, back the video up again,” Irene said. She’d watched in horror at what the people were doing to each other, yet she thought she’d seen something else too. Tim obliged. Tearing her attention away from the foreground action was harder than Irene thought it would be, and it took another two tries before she was able to figure out what her subconscious had caught on the first pass. One of the electronic billboards had an ad running during the riot.
“It’s the game!” she said, the connections snapping into place with a force that had her physically reeling backward. “Balloon Busters. There was an ad playing during the riot and as soon as it went away, the fighting stopped. Is there anyway to verify if the ad was playing anywhere near the other fights? It probably was. I’m sure it was. The game’s making people violent. Well, not all people. Just some people, and I think it’s making them violent toward Tomorrow People, which implies that the the rioters aren’t Tomorrow People.” She had to stop talking to breathe, and in that moment became aware that everyone was staring at her. Even Tim was somehow staring at her, which was amazing since he didn’t have eyes.
Tim rewound the video one more time and played it back slower and without sound. Now that they were looking for it, everyone saw the perfect match in timing.
“Wait, is it the ad or the game that’s causing problems?” Stephen asked. “Because I know I’ve wanted to punch Luca a couple times over that stupid game.”
“It’s the game,” Irene concluded, certain now. “Or it was the game. I don’t know how it works, so let’s say for now that the game has been priming people and the ads were designed to be a trigger.” She sat down heavily on the couch underneath Tim’s console; her head whirled with the pieces of the puzzle and possible hypotheses for how to put them together. Primers, triggers: that was weapon terminology. If someone had designed the game to be a weapon, who were they planning to use it on? And was it too late to shut it down?
“Delete the game, Tim,” Stephen ordered. “Delete it from everyone’s phones and computers. Right now.”
“You’re not going to argue with me?” Irene asked.
Stephen shook his head. “The worst thing that can happen is that people will be annoyed at not being able to get their video-fix. Tim can always put it back.”
“I can’t delete it,” Tim responded.
“Look, if it’s some kind of ethical thing…” Stephen started.
“With respect, Stephen, the issue has no bearing in ethics. It seems that I cannot delete the app at all.”
“But you’re a computer, Tim,” Irene said. “A super computer.” Tim didn’t have powers like the Tomorrow People did—not for lack of both Jedikiah and John trying—but he was tapped in to every computer system in the world, with no constraints due to firewalls or security systems. If there was something in the internet that needed doing, Tim could do it. “What do you mean you can’t delete it?”
“I mean that once the app has been downloaded to its targets’ phones, it cannot be deleted. Not by me or by the user.”
“Does that mean that there’s a computer out there more powerful than you?” she asked.
“Until now, I would have believed that that was unlikely.”
“And now?” Stephen asked.
“Despite the evidence to the contrary, I would still say it’s unlikely. There is something else going on here.”
“Aliens?” Charlotte piped up.
Irene was on the verge of reflexively dismissing the suggestion, except that she seriously had nothing better to offer. What was that about eliminating the possible? Or was it eliminating the impossible? At any rate, there was something out there more powerful than Tim, something that was using a common game to turn regular human beings violent, like the goal was to incite a war or to… to set up a distraction?
“If you can’t delete the app,” Stephen asked, “can you at least reprogram it? Make it so that it doesn’t have any effect?”
“With sufficient time to analyze how the program works, assuming that I can get access to the raw code, I might be able to do the reprogramming you suggest.”
“Which means no,” Stephen concluded.
“Correct. I can attempt to get started on the analysis in question, but I would not recommend waiting until it is finished before you develop other options. If Irene’s hypothesis is true, then the conflicts we just witnessed are only the beginning.” Tim paused, the light of his projector dimming for a moment. “Further, there is no guarantee that I would be successful.”
The mood in the room turned somber. Getting caught in the throes of discovery made it easy to forget that success wasn’t a guarantee. Irene leaned back against the couch; Charlotte settled in close to her, one knobby shoulder pressing against Irene’s arm.
"We'll figure it out," Irene promised her. She squeezed her eyes shut. But how, she wondered. How was she supposed to solve this one? Well, the first thing she was going to need was more time, and there were a couple of more pressing points to get off her plate. “Tim,” Irene said, “I need to send an email to my department chair…” She still had two classes that afternoon which she would not be returning for, plus she had to tell someone about Josh. If he was running around campus with a gun, someone was going to get hurt. While she had no idea if his action was caused by the game, Tim was right about the timing. The two events had to be related.
But, why had he picked her? Why had the people in the crowds picked their targets?
So busy was she in composing the email and in puzzling through her own situation that she ignored the commotion out in the main room, ignored Stephen and Charlotte rushing out of the room.
She looked up when she was done and noticed the empty room. “Tim?”
“Cara and Russell have arrived,” Tim informed her.
Oh. Irene squeezed her eyes shut and tried very hard to teleport. She’d gotten used to having Stephen and Charlotte back in her life, one at a time and spaced slowly over weeks. She wasn’t ready to face the rest of them. She couldn’t deal with the pity that had sat so strongly in their eyes. That pity had been why she’d left. Though she knew that Cara would never have kicked her out, Irene simply couldn’t deal with living each day surrounded with people who could only see her for what she’d lost.
Tim, despite his lack of mind-reading powers, understood exactly what she was thinking. His voice was soft and kind as he said, “They’re still, and always will be, your friends, Irene.” He let that hang in the air a second before adding, “And they need to know what is going on.”
She nodded. Tim was right. He did that a lot.
There was no place to hide in this stripped down room, and no way for her to escape. Even if Stephen or Charlotte didn’t slip and mention that she was back here, eventually one of the others would sense her thoughts. And the longer she kept away from them, the more hurt everyone would be. Strangely, going out to meet people she’d once lived and worked with was more difficult than that first day of her class.
Steeling herself, she opened the command room’s doors and stepped into chaos.
A half dozen Tomorrow People clustered around Cara, Russell, and Stephen. Charlotte stood off to the side, looking lost. On seeing Irene emerge, she ran over and slipped her hand into Irene’s. “Guess what?” she asked. “They were at Times Square. They were the ones everyone else was fighting.”
Irene felt her breath slip out of her as another piece of the puzzle slipped into place. Her friends. Her friends had been attacked, and this time they hadn’t made it out unscathed. At a glance, Irene spotted torn clothing, cuts, and the distressed expressions of people who had no idea why they’d been targeted. She knew that expression well as it had lived on her own face when she’d first come into her powers and learned how that had changed her place in the world, and it appeared on the face of every other new Tomorrow Person who’d come to the Lair in her time.
“So what are supposed to do?” Russell demanded. He was wearing baggy jeans, a t-shirt, and his favorite green over-shirt, all of which were smudged like he’d been rolling in the dirt. “Because I, for one, am not going back into hiding. I’ve wasted enough years of my life holed up in this-this…dump!” Pulling back his leg, he unleashed a powerful side-kick on the nearest piece of furniture. The wood inside the couch’s arm crunched as his foot broke through it.
Cara watched the assault with the jaded patience of someone who expected no less. “It didn’t used to be a dump,” she stated. “I know the furniture isn’t as nice as in the Ultra offices, but it served us well.” Her tight black sleeveless shirt had a large rip over her stomach through which Irene saw a red welt. Long scratches along her collarbone seeped blood in which strands of her hair caught as she looked around, making eye-contact with each of the others in turn. “Maybe it was too soon for us to go topside. We lived down here well—”
“I say we fight!” One of the others yelled. Irene didn’t recognize him. He was tall and skinny with a pile of tight brown curls that bounced as he spoke. His ruddy face grew redder when Cara brought her attention to him, though he held his ground. “It’s our world, too! We shouldn’t have to hide from it.”
Who was he to say that, Irene thought? If she didn’t know him, that meant he hadn’t joined the Tomorrow People until after Ultra’s fall. What did he know about having to live in hiding? About having to live in fear?
“Yeah!” another person agreed. “We just have to let them know who’s really in charge!” She spat the pronoun with the contempt one might have toward a hunk of goo one had stepped on. She had wide eyes set in a wide face and a restlessness that suggested that she was only barely holding herself back from the challenge in her words.
“We can’t all stay down here,” Russell continued, rubbing now at the top of his head like he was rubbing at a goose-egg. “There are too many of us, for one. Where would we put everyone? And, really, why should we have to be the ones who change what we’re doing? We were just getting used to living topside again. We’re not just going to roll up and quit the first time someone doesn’t like what we are, are we?”
Cara spread her hands wide in pleading. “Russell, this isn’t like the kill squads. This isn’t one group out there that we can define and avoid. The way people turned on us—the way they have been turning on us—could happen anytime, anywhere.”
“Then we should fight back,” Russell announced. “Why should we always have to be on the defensive? Why do we always need to be the ones to cower and disappear until the problem goes away? Ultra is gone. The days of the kill squads are supposed to be over. We found the Refuge. Whatever happened to the idea that Tomorrow People could live without fear?”
“This is just a setback. We’ll figure out what happened and find out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“What if we can’t?” Russell asked, not unreasonably. “What if Ultra was just the first wave of humans—” He stopped, scowled, disliking the word the excluded him when it shouldn’t, because he was human. “The first wave of Saps trying to kill us because we’re different?” He lashed out with a fist, this time, punching the already sagging couch-arm. A second punch followed. “What’s holding us back?” he asked, at last. “They attack us and we have to run, right? Because we can’t fight back.”
They could. The Tomorrow People all trained in hand-to-hand combat because Ultra had forced them to a live in a world where needing to protect oneself from a kidnapper or killer was a constant and real threat. They couldn’t count on weapons or even the use of their powers, after Ultra had devised all the various ways of halting or removing them. So they all practiced in martial arts, which had the added benefit of helping to fill the long hours that they had to spend underground. Irene didn’t think martial arts is what he meant, though.
“What do you have in mind?” Cara asked.
“John could take care of himself.”
Cara’s face darkened. They didn’t know where he was, what had happened to him, nothing. Jedikiah was gone, too, so it didn’t take much to assume that the two were connected. Beyond that? Irene knew that Cara believed that she had failed him. “Don’t talk about him like what he could do was something we should aspire toward.” John could kill. He’d subjected himself to the Annex project and had the part of his brain that prohibited killing burned away. He was lucky he hadn’t been killed, like so many other victims of the Annex project had been. Lucky, or not? Because he’d become a damaged Tomorrow Person and simply being able to kill had changed how he thought about killing. He treated it as an acceptable solution to problems, and look where they had landed all of them.
“Why not? We have access to all of Ultra’s equipment. All of their supplies of the serum. Everything. It’s not like what John went through, and not for the same reasons. We just need to give ourselves a fighting chance, and living down here? That’s not it. That’s giving up. I’ve had enough of giving up.”
The rest of the group cheered while Stephen and Cara made eye contact, their expressions worried.
Sensing that he was winning his argument, Russell un-balled his fists, forced himself to stand down. “All we’d be doing is fixing a part of our brains that don’t work the way they’re supposed to. The Annex Project is over. Ultra’s gone. But why shouldn’t we put to use the tools they left us? It’s not like what John went through; it’s just a shot. One little prick in the arm, and then we don’t have to hide. No one’s saying that we have to kill, either. But at least we’ll be able to do more than run if they come after us.”
“I’m in,” the girl said. “Where do I sign up?”
Two other people, neither of whom had spoken before now, stepped forward. “Me too,” they both said. Two girls, one with mid-length wavy hair and a strong nose, wearing jeans and camp shirt, another with her hair shorn close to her head and wearing a blue and white sundress with a high hemline. Like the others, neither were people that Irene recognized. She didn’t know them, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to change that. What had been going on that had all the new people so eager to turn themselves into killers? Had post-Ultra life been so fraught with danger that they saw no way to live without fighting to the death?
Cara shook her head. “No, I won’t allow it. John regretted his decision. He regretted it every second of every day and he would have given anything to undo it. We’ve survived this long. We can survive a few more days down here and then we’ll get back to figuring out how to live up there.”
“What if it’s not a few more days?” the ruddy-faced boy asked. His jeans bore a large rip down his right leg, and bruises had begun to form on the exposed parts of his arms.
The girl in the sundress got a mean look. “Besides, how do we know that John regretted anything? How do we know that John even existed and isn’t some kind of bogeyman you created to control us?”
Cara was losing. Even without her powers, Irene could sense the room turning against the current leadership. It felt a lot like how her classes had turned away from her. Russell probably wouldn’t go over because he’d known John and had suffered the worst of Ultra’s attacks; the others, though? They were starting to physically drift into their own group and all it would take was one person to step forward for them to go after the Annex serum. The last time the Tomorrow People had been brought to this level of schism, they’d had a clearly defined enemy in the Founder and Ultra; now their enemy could be anyone with an iPhone and a couple extra bucks to spend.
Irene couldn’t stand to see Cara looking so at sea about how to deal with this new revolt. “No!” Irene shouted. Next to her Charlotte jumped, her hand squeezing Irene’s so tightly in reflex it hurt. Everyone turned to look at her. From the gasps of surprise, she understood that they’d had no idea she was standing there. Maybe she could have stayed in the command room. “Not being able to kill doesn’t make you broken.”
The wavy-haired girl eyed Irene up and down, then scoffed loudly. “What do you know about it?”
“What do you?” Irene challenged back. Through her shirt, she rubbed the scar on her stomach from where she’d been shot during an Ultra raid, an injury that would have been fatal if not for Stephen’s defiance of the rules that the other TP had lived under for so long. The raid that had killed three of her friends. “You have fantastic powers and all you want is to restore an ability that you probably never would have used anyway? Being able to kill only gets us all dead.” It was the wrong thing to say. She saw the girl’s face close up before she turned away and disappeared. One by one, the other new Tomorrow People also teleported away. To the suddenly much-emptier room, Irene repeated, “Why can’t we find better ways to solve our problems?”
Cara recovered herself with murmurs of apology from Russell, who understood that he’d gone too far, and assurances from Stephen, who promised to redouble his efforts to help train the new Tomorrow People in their own history. “Irene? What are you doing here?” she asked.
“You know, that’s a really long story that has some bits that are a little hard to explain, so it’s probably better if I just tell you that I’m OK, and then we establish if you two are OK?” She waited until Cara and Russell nodded their agreement, even though the number of obvious cuts and bruises meant that both could benefit from some hydrogen peroxide and a few days of rest. “And we really need to talk about what’s going on, inasmuch as I have any idea what’s going on, though I probably know more than you do?” She stopped again to draw a breath, aware that her nerves were making her babble and babbling probably wasn't the best way to express herself, so she offered a half smile and waited to see how Cara would pick up the conversation.
Into the beat of silence, Russell offered an awkward wave.
“Did you come here to get your stuff?” Cara asked, flustered. A second later, she shook her head as if clearing it. “Never mind. We’ll talk later. I need to go stop those idiots from doing something they’ll regret.” Shutting her eyes for a second, she added, “That we’ll all regret.” With that rain check still hanging in the air, she turned and teleported away.
Russell lurched forward like his body wanted to come over to Irene and his feet hadn’t gotten the memo. “I’m, uh, I’m going to help her,” he said. “I really need to learn to keep my mouth shut. Let’s do lunch some time.” And he too vanished.
So, that meant she was on her own to figure out how to stop the brewing war. She felt Charlotte’s hand still in hers and saw Stephen standing right where Cara had left him, and amended their chances of winning. And what had Cara meant about her stuff? When Irene’d moved out, she’d taken all her clothes and books with her. She’d arrived with a single backpack’s worth of belongings and she’d left with that same backpack and a small box. It was kind of sad. Racking her brain, she couldn’t think of anything she’d left behind, except…
She raced into the small room where her laboratory had been set up. Though she was the only one who used the space, she’d always felt like the equipment in it belonged to the Tomorrow People as a group, not to her. It had never occurred to her to include it in her move-out. Someone had taken the time to box everything up, leaving the room dusty and bare save for the pile of boxes by the door. The top box stood with open flaps, the tip of her microscope sticking out. Now, why had she left that behind? She loved her microscope. Hefting the box, she carried it back to the command center to sort through, curious as to what else she’d left behind, while she worked on saving the world. She’d always been good at multi-tasking.
Stephen risked leaving long enough to bring back some sandwiches because their lunch had been so rudely interrupted and Tim didn’t have any way to magically make food exist. While they waited, Charlotte made herself comfortable on the couch with Irene’s iPhone and a game that distinctly was not Balloon Busters, and Irene began unpacking her box onto John’s workbench. Though it felt wrong to be using his space without his permission, she knew that he’d want her to do what she had to. If only what they had discovered today could help in getting him back. She sighed to herself. It wouldn’t help, and if she didn’t focus, she wasn’t going to be able to solve their more pressing problems, either.
“Tim,” she asked, looking up suddenly, “Who’s the creator of the game? They have to exist somewhere, right? Can you get us an address or a location or anything?”
“Give me a moment.”
“Why do you want to know?” Charlotte scowled at her game, apparently finding it lacking. “Do you have anything better on here? I can’t play half these games because the internet’s so slow.”
“If you would like more bandwidth, you only need to ask,” Tim responded, demonstrating that he was also good at multi-tasking.
Irene shook her head softly at the exchange. To Charlotte’s first question, she answered, “I figure that since we can’t delete the game ourselves, we’ll just have to track down the programmers and make them delete it for us. They obviously built some kind of security into the system, which means they’ll be the ones who know how to get around it.”
“How do we make them?” Charlotte asked. “We can’t hurt them.”
“You can’t,” Irene responded. “I’m not like you anymore, remember? Which is not to say that I want to start killing people. I may not have anything preventing me from killing, but I rather like not being a killer. However, they don’t know that. Besides—” She waved at a hand at the view screen where Tim was keeping them updated on the news about the riots—”There are other ways to get people to do things besides hurting them. I'm sure I can figure something out.” Hadn’t anyone heard her; she swore she’d said something on this topic not ten minutes ago.
“Oh,” Charlotte responded, sounding dubious.
Before she could even think about coercion methods, she had other logistical problems to solve, such as how she was going to get there. If the company was hundred or thousands of miles away, they were out of luck. Even if it was nearby, teleporting might not be the right way to travel. While whatever facility they were going likely wouldn't be guarded and defended the way that Ultra was, she did have to consider the possibility of other security measures. They couldn’t afford to rule out any possibility because then they wouldn’t be prepared for the contingency. If the events of her life had taught her anything so far, it was that the future you didn’t see coming would be the one you got.
A person could only duck so many curve balls before she started to expect them.
“I have an address for you,” Tim said at last. As if that piece of information resolved the need for ongoing monitoring, he shut off the view screen. The sudden loss of light and motion cast an eerie silence over the formerly occupied, abandoned, and now re-occupied Lair command center. The sooner they got this situation dealt with, the sooner the Lair could find out which role it was going to play in the new world. Would the Tomorrow People ever have use for this facility again if they weren’t hiding? Would they bother to come clean out all the detritus, or would their garbage and cast offs get left here as a testament to who they had been and hoped never to become?
Irene lifted a box of pipettes out of the box she’d brought in and set it on the table next to the microscope. Whomever had packed the larger box had put things in as they’d found them. So far, Irene hadn’t found anything broken, though she expected that would change as she got closer to the bottom.
“The company is called TB&TG,” Tim supplied. “Presumably, those are the initials of the founders. I am cross-referencing employee records now.” He went on to relay the location they listed on their tax forms, which--good luck!--was close enough that she could take the subway. Funny, they filed taxes. Irene couldn’t imagine that they’d been around long enough to qualify for taxes, and now it turned out that they’d been an established company for more than a decade. “That’s interesting," Tim continued, a few moments later. Without waiting for a response, he continued on with his discovery. "My cross-references of the principal designers have turned up no other activity in computer programming or business management. I’m unable to even find school records or previous tax forms.”
“What does that mean?” Charlotte asked.
“It means,” Irene answered, “that the employees probably aren’t real.” She scowled and filed this new bit of information back with all the other bits that still didn't form a coherent picture. The more she learned, the less she understood and that was the one thing she could not tolerate.
Stephen arrived back then with deli sandwiches. Irene unwrapped hers, took a bite without tasting anything, and pushed the sandwich aside while she continued her excavation and brought Stephen up-to-speed.
Sitting on the couch, he spread the rest of the sandwiches and fixings on the table in front of him, somehow turning food for two people into a mess big enough for eight. Then he picked up his sandwich and held it, his fingers gripped hard into the bread while he contemplated what the scant new information could mean. “It’s easy,” Stephen said, at last. “We’ll teleport into the building, force the programmers to delete their game—”
Irene shook her head. Clearly, he hadn't been listening to her earlier, either. How many times did the Tomorrow People have to fail with their brute methods before they started trying other ones?
“That is not going to be a workable solution,” Tim interrupted.
Charlotte mumbled something. Her mouth was full of food, so Irene guessed that it was “Why not?”, though it could have also been “That’s dumb.”
“While the building itself is easy to locate and has minimal security, the security they do have seems to be geared at preventing Tomorrow People from entering the building. I am getting readings from the building that are consistent with D-chip technology, though somewhat more advanced,” Tim explained.
Stephen tilted his head in confusion. “Which means…?”
“That a Tomorrow Person could not teleport inside the building.”
“What’s to stop us from walking in the front door?” Stephen asked. He was probably remembering how Cara and Russell had rescued him when he was first developing his powers. People who were used to guarding against Tomorrow People’s teleporting powers sometimes forgot that teleporting didn’t preclude them from using more ordinary methods of locomotion.
Tim sounded amused as he answered, “I believe it is safe to assume that the company that has developed a game geared toward making people violent against Tomorrow People perhaps has also encouraged their employees to play it. In short, as soon the personnel sense what you are, you will be under attack.”
Irene pulled out a rack of slides and a plastic baggie of mechanical pencils, taking a moment to appreciate how right it felt to hold both items again. “So, you’re saying that only regular humans can get in? Does that include regular humans who used to be Tomorrow People or ones who are going to become Tomorrow People? Or, is it just, like, regular humans? The ones only have mutations that give them red hair or extra wisdom teeth?”
“There is no way to ascertain that,” Tim replied. “However, the fact that you’re able to play the game leads me to believe that you would also be able to enter the building.”
“But how would she get out?” Stephen asked. “Surely, once the developers know why she’s there, they’ll try to stop her.”
Yeah, that was the problem. She could get in using her feet. Her lack of skills with rappelling down the sides of buildings or sneaking through air ducts were going to prevent a swift escape, though.
“Is there anyone else we know?” Charlotte asked. “The Tomorrow People have been around a long time. There must be lots of people who know about us, but aren’t like us. People we could send to fight the aliens.”
“They’re not aliens,” Stephen reprimanded.
“They could be!” Charlotte sounded indignant, and Irene smiled to herself at the certainty the child had about her conclusions.
“Scientists have been searching for decades for proof of extraterrestrial life,” Irene explained. While she hated to discourage Charlotte’s enthusiasm, some sense of perspective needed to be maintained. Her explanation came to a stop as she took in the box of slides. They were from the research she’d done with Jedikiah to figure out how to transfer people’s powers. Seeing them again sent a wave of bitterness through her. How dare he take her powers! Everything he’d ever done, all the people he’d killed, had been because he was jealous that his DNA didn’t come with the requisite mutations, and he’d seen nothing wrong with lying to everyone, pretending to be their allies, and betraying her to get what he wanted. She supposed they should have known that he was lying; all he ever did was lie.
“So…?” Charlotte prompted, and Irene realized that she had trailed off without finishing her thought on the topic of aliens.
“So, they haven’t found anything. Not a single bit of proof that aliens exist,” Irene answered.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve read the journals. Believe me, if anyone had discovered any proof of aliens, they wouldn’t be keeping it a secret.”
Charlotte grumped at being shot down again and retreated back into eating her sandwich. Irene felt bad for her. At barely twelve, she kept getting caught up in situations that the adult Tomorrow People could barely handle. It wasn’t her fault that being locked up in the Citadel had prevented her from going to school; she had so much knowledge to catch up on, even as her life-experience was arguably more developed than anyone else’s. Why she was so determined to blame aliens, though, Irene didn’t know. One would think that a person who had seen the horrors that humans could do would not have any illusions about the horrors that a human could do. It certainly wouldn’t have been beyond Jedikiah’s ability to develop a video game that started a war between the Tomorrow People and regular humans if he had believed that it would get him the powers he so coveted. Or, barring that, eradicated the TP from existing so that he didn’t have to be constantly reminded about what he didn’t have.
Swallowing down her last bite, Charlotte licked her fingers, then wiped the wet digits off on her jeans. “How much about us in the journals?” she asked, using the word like she wasn’t sure what it was, but she knew it was important.
Irene opened her mouth to answer, then shut it again when she realized that she didn't have one. Charlotte had raised a good point. Jedikiah had been out there, openly researching the Tomorrow People and developing procedures to control and contain their powers, and not a single word of it had ever made its way into a professional journal. Irene was certain that if anyone had published on the topic, she’d know about it.
That’s when her fingers brushed the edges of her own research journal at the bottom of the box. She pulled it out, careful not to disturb the last few items that were still piled over it. She'd left the book behind after she had lost her powers and made her temporary relocation to the Refuge. The faux-leather bound pages opened in her hand to a page that started with the meticulous handwriting that she used when she was still trying to formulate a new idea. Flipping through the next few, she watched her handwriting degenerate into the half-scrawl, half-shorthand she used when her thoughts were coming so fast that if she didn’t get them down, she’d lose them completely.
It was all here. All her notes, all her experiments into TP genetics. Years of data.
And, there, on the last page was a different note, a different handwriting. These letters were tightly formed, squeezed between the lines like a secret breathed into her ear. The additional paragraphs weren’t dated, weren’t even in the same ink that she normally used. She didn’t know who had added them, though she could guess. Was it just one more violation? Did he always have to leave his mark? Indignation started to rise in her; she envisioned grabbing a Sharpie and scribbling over the intrusive marks until they vanished beneath a sheath of black. Even as she debated it, her eyes skimmed the writing. She read the words, and read them again, then closed the book.
Irene pushed through the revolving door at the front of the office building and stepped into the marble-and-metal lobby as if she had done this every day for the last year. It was hard not to stop in the middle of the lobby and spin around, admiring the ceiling that went all the way to the top of the building. She caught a glimpse of an ornate glass sculpture hanging from the skylight. Swirls of color shone down the walls and onto the floor like she was walking through a kaleidoscope. Around her, dozens of people crossed through the lobby, all hurrying, all tense, their heads bowed, their eyes glued to the devices in their hands. Small pops and bloops filled the air. Yet no one ran into anyone else or otherwise seemed to notice the others or the play of lights.
A man with spiky hair and thick-rimmed glasses sitting behind the reception desk glared at her suspiciously. Did he sense that her DNA still had the Tomorrow People genes? Or was he just doing his gatekeeping job? From the messenger bag slung over her shoulder, Irene pulled out a clipboard with a sheaf of papers on it. Waving the clipboard like it was a passkey, she strode right past the reception desk and toward the bank of elevators she’d spotted on the other side.
“Excuse me! Miss!” the receptionist called. His tone had a nasty edge to it that suggested he’d been spending too much time in his own game.
Irene ignored him and slipped past a group of people waiting for an elevator and through the emergency door into the stairwell. Unlike the rest of the lobby, the stairwell was a bare cement, its presence valued only for its legal necessity. The door clanged loudly as it shut behind her, and she found herself with only the echoes of her breaths for company. Two sets of stairs lay in front of her, one going up and one going down, taunting her with more steps than she could remember climbing in a long time. She really needed to start hitting the gym. Being able to teleport had gotten her into a bad habit of forgetting that distance existed, much less that physical effort was required to cover it. Even though she hadn’t had that ability for awhile, she still wasn’t always good about remembering how space and time worked for the average person, or how much effort went into covering distance.
Considering that the alternative was to voluntarily trap herself in an enclosed place with people who had been brainwashed into wanting to kill those with her genetic blueprint, stairs suddenly looked a lot more pleasant. And she wasn’t going to get anywhere if she didn’t start climbing. One step at a time, right? Shifting the messenger bag so that it was better balanced across her body, she grabbed the handrail and started down the steps.
Really, it wasn’t the stairs that taxed her. It was what could be waiting at the bottom. Though she’d spent the last twenty-four hours immersed in her research, trying to put into effect what the final note told her had to be possible, a part of her mind hadn’t been able to divorce itself from playing out all the possible scenarios. What was she going to find? A bad guy with a thick black mustache that he twirled while cackling about how he’d lured her into his lair? A group of wild-haired mad scientists with their lab coats and scary looking needles who had nefarious plans for humanity? A varnished wood boardroom with slick business people in their black suits, calculating the cost/benefit ratio of mankind evolving? She shook her head, dislodging the scenarios. Each was too simplistic, too cliche. Yet it wasn’t hard to find the parallels in them to what she had already experienced at the hands of Jedikiah and the Founder.
Was that really the world she wanted back into?
The stairwell reeked of fresh paint. The scent was thick, working its way through every pore of her body and making it hard to breathe.
She had never felt so alone, so stifled.
Tim had analyzed the building, seeking all the intel he could because Irene had to be able to move quickly once she got inside. Floor plans had been easy enough to come by. The real question was where exactly Irene was likely to find the game developers. For all she knew, they worked in offices on different floors and she’d have to take them on one-at-a-time. Take them on how, though? She still hadn’t figured out that out. She hoped that a stern talking to would work. Could she threaten them with a pop quiz? An extra-challenging final exam? Maybe a research paper?
“The strongest D-chip signals are coming from underground,” Tim had told them. “According to the floor plans, there are two sub-basements. Based on the signal strength, I suspect there is a third, unsanctioned, level. The organization is clearly putting great effort in preventing Tomorrow People from entering this location.”
That meant one of two things: either that that particular location had what they were looking for, or that that particular location had something worse.
Charlotte got to the second conclusion a split second after Tim laid out his assessment. Her face paled, her eyes went wide. “Like the Citadel?” she asked, her voice a bare whisper. “Do you think they’re keeping Tomorrow People prisoner?”
Irene went to her, wrapping her arms around the quivering child from one side while Stephen came in from the other. The idea of more Tomorrow People being kept prisoner was nowhere near as ludicrous to her as the idea of the game developers being aliens, but this time she kept her mouth shut and carefully shielded her thoughts so that Charlotte couldn’t pick up what she didn't dare say.
“If they are,” Stephen spoke, with all the authority of his role as the Tomorrow People’s leader, “we’ll make sure they never do again. The world is different now and we’re going to make sure that no Tomorrow People are ever held captive again.”
Charlotte mulled this over. She had experienced too much to be naive to the dangers of the world. “You promise?”
Irene met Stephen’s eyes. She couldn’t ask him what she wanted, but she suspected that already knew: Was Charlotte getting the help she needed? Though everyone had understood that Charlotte was traumatized, no one knew just how much. Holding the girl as she shivered and tears ran silently down her cheeks, even as her question held a hopeful lilt, demonstrated how much she still needed help recovering.
Stephen gave a slight nod. He’d had so much on his plate getting the Tomorrow People organized and keeping them going after the losses they’d suffered, not the least of which was getting Roger back only to lose him again. Stephen’s dad, she reminded herself. Roger wasn’t just the Tomorrow People’s founder and leader, he was also Stephen’s dad. Stephen had suffered too. At least she now knew that he’d see to Charlotte. Whatever happened to Irene—and she couldn’t let anything happen to her because Charlotte couldn’t suffer another loss—at least she knew that Charlotte would have someone looking out for her.
Which was what kept her feet walking down the stairs, no matter how strong the paint smell grew, no matter how much her hands sweated, no matter how much she wanted to turn around and go back out that revolving door because she still didn’t know what she was going to do when she got to the bottom. She’d never been the kind of person to stand up for herself, which was probably why her adviser had felt so confident in taking her work. What was she going to do? Well, as it turned out, she was going to develop superpowers, throw him across the room in the most surprising discovery of telekinesis ever, and get expelled from a PhD program that had once begged her to come study with them. It had put her on Ultra’s radar, which had forced her to go spend years living in an abandoned subway station where she became a member of a rebel alliance fighting in a shadow war that would make conspiracy theorists around the world drool in envy if they had any inkling that it existed. And now, here she was, standing on the bottom landing of sub-basement number two, staring at a solid metal fire door that was clearly marked employees only. Pictured beneath that was the company’s logo: an inverted V formed from one blue rectangle and one green.
She pushed the door open.
What she found looked like the Lair did after a video game tournament. Bright track lights in the ceiling illuminated a floor littered with the wrappers from Twinkies and bags from Cheetos. Crushed Mountain Dew and Red Bull cans circled a mound near the door that probably had a garbage can beneath it. A large wooden table in the middle of the room housed a setup of five computers, arranged so that the users could see each other if they wished. The scent of paint gave way to the funk of body odor and overcooked TV dinners. All this, and she couldn’t see anyone. Where were the developers? Had she caught them on break? Had they all gone to the bathroom at the same time?
This was the one chance she had to stop the infernal game before all the riots and mobs turned into a full scale war, and the person she needed to confront wasn’t even in. Should she come back? Would she be able to come back?
“Miss?” she heard, echoing down the long staircase. The receptionist; it had to be. She hadn’t been as clever in getting past him as she hoped. Which also answered her question.
She flipped the lock on the door—certainly a violation of several fire safety rules—then scrambled for a place to hide. Except for the nest of wires under the table, there wasn’t one.
Well, the computers were sitting right there. Though she was hardly an expert, she knew enough that maybe she could figure out how to disable the game before someone else caught her.
First things first, though. Kneeling down, she fished the PowerAde bottle out of her messenger bag. Blue liquid sloshed up the sides of the half-filled bottle. She regarded it with more than a small amount of trepidation. Did she really want to do this? What if it didn’t work?
What if it did?
The close air of the room was making her throat itch and her tongue stick to her teeth. Or maybe it was nerves doing that. Either way, she couldn’t sit here staring at the drink in her hand without making some kind of decision. Crucial and long seconds later, she squeezed her eyes shut, steeled herself against the weakness of her own self-doubt, and slugged back the drink. The bottle was empty before her thirst was slaked, but she had work to do and no time to hunt down a water fountain. Tucking the bottle back in the bag, she stood up.
Making her way to the table, she inspected it for any obvious traps or alarms. Unless the fluorescent orange crumbs that dusted everything had been left to alert the programmers to someone else touching their keyboards, she didn’t see any. The screens were dark and she also saw no labels or signs that differentiated one computer from the other, so she grabbed the nearest mouse and jiggled it.
The screen blipped to life. It resolved after a moment into a display unlike anything she had ever seen. Rather than the Windows interface she was expecting, or even a full-screen version of the Balloon Busters game, what she saw was a black screen sectioned into eight squares with a large gray blob wriggling in each one. At the top of the screen, in round white letters, was printed the words PODS 8-16.
“Pods?” she spoke. She leaned closer to the screen to try to make sense of what she was seeing. The blobs looked a lot like Ultrasound. As she studied them, the light grays and dark grays took on shape and definition, forming a whole. She blinked at the results, tilting her head back and forth. The change of angle didn’t make any difference. What she saw was alive, but definitely not human. Charlotte had been right. They were aliens.
Only then did she see the meters at the bottom of each pod. The bars looked to be just over half full, though what they were measuring was not indicated.
With movements that grew increasingly frenzied, she hurried to the next computer and the next, bringing each screen to life in turn and confirming what she already suspected. The displays on each were sectioned into eighths with the same gray globs swirling in each one. The only difference was the pod numbers. In total, she counted 39 pods. One square on the third computer was ominously empty. She assumed that whatever was supposed to be growing there had died.
The meters ticked up a notch.
Irene tapped the screen, punched the escape key, and joggled the mouse again.
“Get away!” someone shouted, voice thick with fear.
A woman had entered the room through…it looked like a panel in the otherwise nondescript wall that had slid aside to hint at a different room that lay beyond it. The woman was elderly with dyed-orange hair and a bowed back; the skin on her parchment-yellow face was stretched tight like it was all being gathered behind her head. In one hand she held a cane that she used to help balance and in the other was a bag of Cheetos. A smear of orange around her mouth and across the tips of her fingers suggested that she was significantly responsible for the detritus on the floor. She advanced on Irene. “I said get away! Who are you? What are you doing?”
Irene jumped back, and immediately regretted it. This had to be the person she’d come here to confront, but how could this old woman be the game developer behind Balloon Busters? She hardly looked capable of knowing what an iPhone was, much less using one, considering the inefficacy of touch screens when covered with cheese smears. “What am I doing? What are you doing? You’re growing aliens and using video games to make people kill each other and living in a basement room that completely reeks—didn’t anyone ever teach you to clean up after yourself? You’ll get rats!”
A grin started to spread across the woman’s face like she had no problem with rats because that meant protein.
And if that was seriously her only reaction to the whole word dump, Irene was really going to question the wisdom of coming down here alone, without any backup. Later, though. When she had time to do a proper meltdown and sanity check. A warmth started to grow in her chest, hot enough that she felt it radiating through her shirt. She had to resist the urge to touch the spot, because focus was what was important here.
“You shouldn’t be down here,” the woman stated. She advanced toward the table; the long housecoat she wore swished across the tops of her slippered feet with each step. “You need to leave.”
“Leave?!” Irene barked out a laugh. “I’m not leaving until you tell me what’s going on. Starting with…” She trailed off because she couldn’t pick a place to start. The aliens? The computer game? The Cheetos? Seriously, junk food had always been popular in the Lair and she’d never understood most of it. Any color that didn’t occur in nature didn’t belong in her body. “Screw it.”
All the questions piling up in her head didn’t erase one major point: Tomorrow People were getting attacked because of what they were. Her friends were getting attacked because of what they were. Her desire to learn more about the connection between the aliens and the computer game and the attacks had nothing on what was really important. She grabbed one of the desk chairs, ignoring the patina of cheese that caked the arms, and hefted it. Only because she was so riled up was she strong enough. She stood there with the chair raised, her arms shaking from the effort of holding anything so heavy, and her body tingling with the spreading heat. “Turn off the game or I’m going to start smashing.”
The smile fell off the woman’s face. “No! Put it down! They’re finally so close.” The fear was back in her voice. “They’re finally going to hatch.”
“If you break the life support monitors, you’ll kill them.” The woman dropped her bag of Cheetos and held an imploring hand out toward Irene. “Just put the chair down. They didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just babies.”
“Turn off the game. Balloon Busters. Turn it off. Delete it from everyone’s phones.”
The woman shook her head. “Not until the pods are hatched. They need to eat. Can’t you see how close they’re getting?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Irene could see the meters slowly ticking toward full. They were aliens and they were going to hatch. Then what? Take over the world? “What are they eating? What did the game have to do with anything?”
The woman’s forehead creased and she looked at Irene like she thought Irene should already know the answer. “The pods have to eat. They can’t hatch without proper nourishment.”
Like the missing one, probably. It had died because it didn’t get enough to eat. But what was it eating? How? She raised the chair higher, preparing herself to bring it down onto the computer. She wouldn’t be able to, but the woman had no way to know that.
“No, please! I’ve been guarding them, keeping them safe. I just want them to hatch so they can leave. I won’t get asked to tend another pod-set if this one survives. Please.” Tears glistened in her eyes and she looked like she wanted to drop to her knees only her body wasn’t limber enough for that anymore.
Irene didn’t trust the woman, not at all. That smile at the mention of the rats had destroyed any chance of trust ever existing, but she really needed some answers. She lowered the chair. The twinge of muscles in her shoulders thanked her for putting the weight down. “Tell me about the game,” she ordered. “Tell me what it is and what it does, or the next time I pick up that chair, it won’t be a threat.” She borrowed her best Cara-voice, pitching her tone to be as determined and confident as she could make it—and it sounded good, if she did say so herself. Maybe, with a little more practice, she could get the hang of this leadership thing, even when she didn’t feel a single whit of it.
“Why should I do that?” the woman asked. She shuffled deeper into the carpet of plastic wrappers as if to sneak up on Irene and treat her like one of the rats. A pounding on the fire door interrupted her question.
“Miss?” the receptionist called. Had it really taken him this long to descend two flights of stairs? His voice was muffled through the door and noticeably shaking as he asked, “Are you in there?”
“EMPLOYEES ONLY!” the woman shouted back.
There was a scape, then a muted, “Sorry. I-I-Sorry. Sorry.” Irene couldn’t hear the receptionist as he retreated up the stairs, though she knew he did. He’d come after her to save her, but the little old woman was ultimately too terrifying. Little did he understand that she didn’t plan to be the one who needed saving. Not today.
“What did I just say?” Irene demanded. Again she reached for the chair. Her shoulders were protesting the weight they’d already been asked to hold for too long, and an ache was starting to form in the back of her head. Nerves, maybe? Bad lighting? “Because, you know, I’d love to dissect one of these things. I’ve dissected frogs and fetal pigs and a human hand, and it turns out that there’s no surprises in any of those things because we’re all descended from the same ancestors. But these things?” She tipped her chin toward the nearest computer where the gray blobs continued to swim in their sectioned squares on the screen. “I’ve never seen anything like these, so I figure…." She stopped. From the way the woman's expression was closing off, Irene understood that the threats weren't getting her anywhere. She'd implored the other Tomorrow People to try for different tactics than violence, and here she had fallen right into them. Be the change, she thought. "Maybe I can help.” She stepped back, hands up as proof of her weaponlessness. “I like learning new things and I don’t like when my friends are hurt.”
“Help?” the woman repeated, clearly confused at Irene's abrupt switch. “Leave them alone and you’ll help.”
“See, that’s the problem because your way of feeding your--” She couldn’t bring herself to say children. The woman in front of her was kind of gross, but she still looked just as human as Irene did, for whatever that was worth--”your pods is awful. You’re making millions of people go. to. war. with each other so that your 39 pods can hatch? How is that fair?”
“All they need is a few more weeks, then they’ll leave the planet and you’ll never hear from them again,” the woman implored. She sounded and looked less dangerous with each second, like her initial fight posturing had become impossible to maintain. If she had been a bird, her poofed feathers and outstretched wings would be smoothed and pulled in close now. She stopped her slow shuffling and bored her gaze into Irene. “How did you find out? Your kind always finds out. No matter what planet we try to incubate on, you always stop them. I was warned about you telepaths. How did you get past our security? We made sure to lock you all out.”
Irene froze. That was not what she thought would come next in the conversation. In fact, this whole confrontation wasn’t going as planned, Charlotte was going to have a field day when she learned that there really were aliens, and Irene really didn’t know what she was supposed to do next. She took a moment to gather herself and to study the situation, trying to understand it through the lens of her new information. The computers on the table looked old. Not as old as the one in her department chair’s office, but they definitely had a couple years on them. Their fans whirred with effort and the keyboards looked like they had some loose keys. She finally realized what had been bugging her all along: aliens, incubation, a totally new reason to blame video games for violence, and yet she saw nothing to so much as hint to advanced technology. Shouldn’t aliens have advanced technology? Ultra had better tech than this.
In a flash of brilliance, she had an idea.
“I don’t understand.” Stephan leaned up against the worktable in the Lair, nearly knocking over one of her racks of test tubes. At the last second he caught it, fumbled it, then shoved the whole thing far enough back that even one of his inattentive elbow swings wouldn’t threaten it again. “She told you everything? You threatened her with a chair and she…what?…rolled right over, turned off the game, and let you walk away?”
“Actually, Stephen—” Tim started.
Irene cut the computer off with a pointed glare. This was her story to tell.
“It wasn’t exactly like that.” Irene pushed a swath of hair out of her eyes and took a seat. She’d been running around a lot lately and putting her feet up felt good. Charlotte was already seated at the other end. She was wearing a dress she’d picked out that she said looked like an ice-skater’s outfit, and she’d made Irene and Stephen promise to take her skating again after the debrief.
“It’s because they were aliens,” Charlotte chimed in, without looking up from her latest game. “Aliens don’t have to make sense. They’re aliens.”
“Aliens don’t have to make sense to us,” Irene correct, “but they do need to make sense. Everything that exists needs to follow an internal logic which should be discoverable through observation and experimentation.”
“That sounds familiar,” Stephen murmured.
“It should. I said it in class on, like, the second day,” Irene answered. “Also, it’s true. The woman—who is a human, by the way—” A disgusting, Cheeto covered, possibly rat eating human—”was charged with helping the group of pods get enough energy to hatch. Because they feed on violent energy, she devised the Balloon Busters game, which—you know, I don’t actually have any idea how it works. When people played the game, it created the energy that the pods needed for their sustenance. It’s really gross. And cool. And gross.”
“So why can’t we play it?” He gestured between himself and Charlotte, who glanced up briefly then promptly went back to ignoring them.
Tim interrupted, unable as always not to weigh in when he had an opinion. “It’s not enough for people to be angry at a game. They needed a physical target.” The problem with know-it-all computers is that they didn’t have mouths one could clap a hand over. Tim didn’t even have a proper off-switch.
Stephen made a face, splaying his hands in an open appeal. “Don’t we already have enough groups of people who want to destroy other groups of people?”
“Soooo,” Irene said, dragging the attention back to her story, “she picked telepaths as her target to keep them so occupied that they wouldn't stop what she was doing. Did you know that there are telepaths on other planets, too? She told me a little about it while we were switching the pods over.”
“I told you it was aliens,” Charlotte added, this time without looking up at all. “You said I was wrong and I said I wasn’t, so there!”
Stephen shook his head, then ran a hand through his hair. “So, what did you do and why did she let you walk away?”
“She didn’t, really,” Irene went on. “I threatened her, she threatened me, I threatened her pods, she threatened me, and then I told her that I could come up with a better way for the pods to get their energy so that they could hatch faster and she would be released from caring for them. She’s had to tend to those things for ten years. Can you imagine ten years, being trapped in that room? She wasn’t even old. She was just really prematurely aged because the pods had been draining her energy to stay alive while she was working on the game. Well, her energy, and the energy of the other developers.”
“The game was literally making people waste their life?” Stephen asked.
“I guess that’s one way to look at it.”
“What was your grand solution?”
“Oh, that.” Irene looked down and picked at a pill on the cushion cover. At least Russell hadn’t been in this room when he vented his anger. This couch was probably the oldest piece of furniture in the Lair, and she could remember John bringing it in. With all the problems she was solving these days, she could work on getting John back next. If she could, it’d be nice for him to have familiar surroundings to return to. “I gave her access to Ultra’s computer system. In some ways, this alien species is more advanced than us and in others--they had only the foggiest idea of what virtual reality is. Can you believe that? ”
“You gave--” Stephen sputtered. He straightened up, paced across the room, then whirled around, his anger at her brazenness crushed under a different question. “How?” They all knew that Ultra’s offices and the game developer’s officers were miles apart.
Irene grimaced. “I had her shut down the D-chips, and then I kind of teleported.” With a wave of her hand, she lifted her research journal from the table and brought it over so she could turn to and display the requisite page. “Jedikiah managed to do one good thing: he left me instructions on how to reactivate my powers.” The trick was obvious when she saw it spelled out. If she hadn’t been so busy avoiding her research, she could have restored her powers months ago. She looked at Stephen and Charlotte, both staring at her with their mouths open, both people she had known before but hadn’t thought of as being more than “part of the crew” and now people she counted as close friends. Only through her determination to accept her loss had she gained so much, so maybe not diving right into her own genomic research had been a good decision.
For a long moment, no one could say anything. Then Stephen whooped and Charlotte started clapping. There were hugs. Lots of hugs. Even Tim sounded a little teary as he stated, “It’s good to have you back.”
“I’m sorry I missed class—” she started. Once again, she took in the cluttered office with its ancient computer monitor and the Chair, now in a denim skirt and brown paisley blouse. The whole scene felt less like a part of her real life than it ever had. It didn’t matter, though, because what she was planning to do was to resign. Assuming she didn’t get fired first. She had the letter tucked into the pleather portfolio folder that she held between clenched fingers. She’d be willing to finish out the semester, but she wouldn’t be back for the spring.
“No, no, no.” The Chair stood up to greet her, arms out as if to catch Irene in a hug. “Welcome back!” She ushered Irene into a chair with repeated assurances of how happy the department was to have Irene return. “Your absence is totally understandable. A person cannot be expected to put themselves into positions where they don’t feel safe.” She stopped and regarded Irene for a long second. “I do hope you feel safe enough to return. You’ll be happy to know that, thanks to your alert, the student in question was arrested. Expulsion proceedings are in the works, as well.” She nodded and brushed her hands together as if she’d checked off her entire to-do list. Please don’t quit now. There’s no way we’ll be able to find someone to fill those classes mid-way through the semester.
Irene pinched back the smile that wanted to pop out at what the Chair’s thoughts revealed. It was better than the pity she wanted to feel for Josh. He’d brought his expulsion on himself, even if he probably could honestly claim that aliens made him do it. “Thank you for understanding.”
“You weren’t the only person he targeted,” the Chair continued, as if Irene hadn’t said anything.
Irene’s eyebrows went up. Not only hadn’t she known that on her own, the Chair’s thoughts had given no hint. “Was she, or he—it could be a he—were they hurt?” She’d been able to get away because she had two teleporters looking out for her. What about everyone else? And, wow, there’d been other people. That meant that there were other Tomorrow People here on campus, which shouldn’t statistically be a surprise, yet still was. “I mean, I understand if you can’t say anything….”
“Everyone’s fine,” the Chair answered. How strange that he threatened two teachers on opposite sides of the campus. Josh didn’t even take art. Poor Lizzie was so shaken up. “We take threats of violence on this campus very seriously, and security measures were implemented immediately.” She forced out a deep breath. “Going forward, I sincerely hope that we can build a much more positive relationship. Please do not hesitate to let us know if you need anything to help you get re-acclimated.”
Boy, did that change things. Not the offer, which the Chair might mean or she might just be trying to forestall a lawsuit, but the information about another Tomorrow Person.
It meant that she couldn’t resign yet. Not today, anyway. She needed to go meet this art teacher and find out exactly how much they had in common. After that? Maybe Irene would stay here, in this place where there were Tomorrow People to be found. She couldn’t do her research here, but she could still do research. And maybe it was time for some of the information she’d learned about Tomorrow People genetics to make it into the scientific conversation. She couldn’t be the only biologist out there who had something to say on the topic. Someone had to be the first one, and with her insider knowledge, she had to be the one in the best position to break the ice. She glanced at her phone, comparing the time with the digital clock on the Chair’s desk. Somehow, they matched. “I’d better get to class,” she said, standing up. “We have a lot of material to cover before the test, and now we’re running behind.”
“Of course,” the Chair answered, standing up only an instant before Irene did. “There’s just one other matter…” She was looking past Irene, her eyes narrowed.
Irene followed her gaze and caught a glimpse of Stephen through the open crack in the door. Suddenly the print-out of the Employee Handbook made sense. The Chair thought that Irene was dating Stephen: her student. Had Josh been responsible for that rumor, too? Probably. “Stephen’s my friend,” she stated. She wasn’t going to allow an upstart student who couldn’t even pretend to respect his instructor win even the smallest victory. “I knew him before I got the job here, and I’m not going to stop hanging out with him because I have the job here. I promise that our friendship won’t cause a conflict of interest.” We already have enough of those, she added to herself.
“Yes, good,” the Chair answered. She nodded, though a tightening of the muscles around her mouth gave away her suspicion of Irene’s explanation. “It’s important that everyone in this department stays on the same professional page.” Again, her thoughts gave nothing away. Irene suspected that the Chair would have pushed the issue further if she weren’t afraid of giving Irene even more impetus to quit. Irene had dealt with a lot of strange powers recently; this one had to be the strangest of all—the power to subdue her boss simply by refusing to quit. She wasn't sure how she felt about having that kind of control. “You have our sincerest assurances that the school is doing everything it can to provide a safe and comfortable working environment.”
Irene contemplated the scratched chalkboards and the desks that were so old they still had lead paint on them, and decided that that was a discussion for another time. Perhaps she could talk to someone about having Ultra make a grant to the Biology department. She appeared to know people these days. “I appreciate that.” She cut another glance at her phone to emphasize the shortness of time. Then holding her portfolio close to her chest, she offered the Chair a final nod and smile, and stepped out of the office.
Stephen was waiting for her outside the Chair’s office when she emerged. His backpack was slung over one shoulder with the hood from his sweater bunched up under the strap and around the back of his neck. He looked more at ease than she had seen him in weeks. “So?” he asked, falling into step beside her.
Irene tucked the portfolio under her arm, its letter still undelivered. “You mean you don’t know?” If she had been him, she’d have been reading the minds of everyone in the room. Though, it was always possible that he was asking for information only out of politeness.
Lifting his hand, he showed her the suppressor bracelet, its pale blue light proof that it was on and working. Huh. She also would have ditched the bracelet. Now that she had her own powers back, she would know whether Stephen was using his in class. He might be a Synergist, but she’d still had her powers longer and knew a few more tricks about how to use them than he’d had time to learn. “You know, you don’t need to wear that anymore?”
He shrugged. “I kinda like it. It’s nice to have a part of my life that isn’t all about superpowers. Not that I’d want to give up my powers permanently…” He shot a glance at her to check her reaction. The loss of her powers—now safely categorized as a temporary loss—was still a sore point in her personal history. When she didn’t react, save for a slight lifting of her eyebrows, he continued, “Besides, it’s important for all of us to remember what it’s like to be regular humans.”
Irene looked around at the students and staff passing them in the hallway. She saw turbans and bare heads and kippahs; jeans, shorts, long skirts, and super-short skirts; khafirs, t-shirts, and blouses. She saw all manner of heights and weights; able-bodied and not; black, brown, and beige skins. The vocal variety was just as strong. From the clusters of students who passed her, she heard at least a dozen different languages as well as English spoken in at least a dozen accents. “Even though they keep trying to kill us?” she asked. How many of these people had been turned against the Tomorrow People? Would their brainwashing be undone now that the game was gone? She suspected it already had been because no one gave the two Tomorrow People so much as a sideways glance. Who knew about long-term affects, though. Ultimately she couldn’t do much about the former players except understand that they existed. What she could do was work on the people who hadn’t been affected: her fellow Tomorrow People, both current and future. She’d shown them that there were other ways to solve their problems. Now all she had to do was to get them to stop fighting their biology.
Stephen stepped aside for a young woman in a wheelchair who tilted her head as she passed, an odd expression crossing her face, like she recognized him from somewhere and couldn’t place where. “It’s a new world,” he answered. “We’re all going to have to learn to live in it together." Shoving his hands in the pockets of his hoodie, he contemplated an emergency route sign posted on the wall. His thoughts raced through his head so fast and so chaotically that Irene knew he wasn't seeing the sign at all. She waited, not wanting to grab onto a stray thought and follow it when a little patience would get her to the same place. At last, he continued without meeting her gaze. "Cara destroyed all the Annex serum. She also purged the records. It's gone. Destroyed. No one will ever be able to use it again."
"What?" Irene had heard him, of course. He'd only said the same thing four times. "She destroyed it? Like, all of it?" Relief. She should be feeling relief. So why did she only have a sense of loss at the knowledge that Cara had just taken from the TP?
"Every last drop," Stephen confirmed. "Brianna and the others are just going to have to organize their revolution some other way. And you still haven’t answered the question of what you’ve decided to do about yourself.”
"Oh." She rubbed her neck, massaging away the whiplash of the last two conversations. She really needed a few days to process everything that happened. And cookies. Cookies would be nice, with some hot cocoa. Maybe Mrs. O'Connell would make some real cookies, if Irene asked her nicely. A quiet evening in sounded like a good start on the break she needed before the inevitable next bit of excitement started. “I think I’m going to stick around here for awhile. This isn’t where I see myself working for the rest of my life, because, let’s face it, I can do a lot better than teaching in a community college. Maybe a few semesters would be good, though. Give me a chance to put some roots down and establish a routine, figure out where I really want to go next.”
Stephen was nodding, and they were almost at the classroom. “So you’re not going to move back into the Refuge?”
“I think you’ll see me around enough that you won’t know that I haven’t,” she answered. She pulled Stephen to a stop outside the classroom. A quick look inside showed that the room was nearly as full as it was going to get, and all the students—every single one—was biding their time before the class started by playing on their phones. At least she knew they weren’t playing Balloon Busters. Whether the replacement game was any better, though, remained to be seen. “So, I did learn something interesting in the meeting.”
“You’re going to need some gen ed credits to get your major, right?” Off Stephen’s confused nod, she continued, “How do you feel about signing up for an art class?”
His brow pinched tight as he tried to figure out what she was getting at. “Art? I can barely draw stick figures. Art is, like, the one class that I routinely failed in high school even before I started to break out. Why would I sign up for a class I can’t pass?”
“Because you’re the leader of the Tomorrow People, and I have a really good lead on a person who’s about to break out. Do you really want her to go through what you went through?”
Stephen blanched, and Irene knew she’d hit her mark. Of course he didn’t want anyone to go through what he did, in any sense of the experience. They were shaping a new world now, one where no one would have to. It was going to take work, though, a lot of work. It was going to take challenging expectations and making an active effort to see past the paranoia and fear they’d all rightly earned. It was going to take risks with trusting people. In the end, she hoped, what they would build was a better tomorrow for all of them.
“Fine,” he agreed.
Patting his arm, she commended him. “I knew you’d see the light.”
With that, she entered her classroom and waited while Stephen took his seat in the front row. “Welcome back,” she spoke to the class. “I know we’ve missed a couple classes and we have a lot of material to catch up on, but I want to take a break from the lesson plan today.” She heard a rustle sweep through the room, the sound of backpack zippers opening, paper shuffling, people shifting in their seats. The red-headed girl was sitting in the second row today and she already had her notebook and pen out, open, and ready to go. Irene took a seat on the teacher’s table and looked out over her class. They'd all put all their phones away without a single comment from her. This was a different world, already. “It may not seem like it, but even humans are evolving. That manifests in all kinds of ways, big and small. The world you live in today isn’t going to be the world you live in tomorrow. People have to change."
[Cute,] she heard Stephen think at her. [Real cute.]
She ignored him. Her students were taking notes. She’d hardly said anything yet, but her students were listening to her and writing stuff down. "So, today," she continued, "let’s take some time to focus on the role biology plays in who we are.” Unbidden, she thought of the aliens that were incubating inside an office building in New York City, and how they needed violent energy to hatch, but then would grow into beings that did nothing worse than peaceably travel the galaxy.
This was a topic she really had some opinions on. Maybe she’d propose a whole class on it for next year, if the school let her. Now that she had her class’s attention, she jumped down from the desk, picked up a piece of chalk, and began writing on the board. Who knew how much they'd understand right now, but at least she could point them in the right direction for later.
She listened to the soft squeals of the chalk on the board and the scratches of her students writing. The hum of their concentrated thoughts pressed against the back of her mind. In between one sentence and the next, she allowed a small pause so that the happiness that was building up inside could find an outlet in a small smile. While this was the last place Irene ever expected to end up, she rather looked forward to where she was going to go next.