The Psionics Training and Application Academy’s main campus at Langley, Virginia was modeled after university campuses elsewhere in the state: all brick buildings and brick paved walkways separated by large lawns and stands of well groomed trees and hedges. Here and there, stone planters bore fragrant displays of late spring flowers.
It might look like a university, but it was also a high school and a training center for adults. There was no scholastic or educational requirement for admission and tuition was heavily subsidized by the government. Because in addition to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, the PTAA offered the small segment of the population born with supernatural powers lessons on to harness and control them and use them to be productive citizens.
Alexis Keyes knew the place well. Not only had she taught there for two years, but she was an alumnus: gifted with the power to exude and manipulate a cloud of energetic particles she called ‘black heat’. She loved the place; it had been her second home for four years.
Taking a deep breath of the flower scented air, she stopped to take a rest on one of the stone benches out in front of the administration building. She had quiet a walk to go to reach her classroom in Lee Hall. For the time being, she was saving her money for a car she really wanted, resigning herself to taking a commuter pod in from her apartment in McLean. The only stop for commuter pods on campus was the administration parking lot, on the opposite side of campus from Lee Hall.
For the third time that month, she vowed to lodge a complaint about the lack of commuter coverage on campus. It wasn’t just her, after all; many of the other teachers and students depended on the self driving public vehicles to get to the Academy.
Sitting there, looking up and down the main walk along campus made her nostalgic for the friends she’d made while a student there. Mostly Laurel Brant and Ian Smythe; they three had been as close as anyone could be without blood ties.
So why hadn’t she talked to them in two years? A frown marred her features. Laurel was probably grooming to take over the family business from her father; the multi-billion dollar Brant Industries would certainly benefit from Laurel’s hypercognition. It made her one of the top minds in the country on a number of subjects, albeit none of them business related. Yet.
To be honest, she could only guess what the timid young man she’d known would be up to now. He’d followed Laurel out west, taking up her offer to have her father put them all through college together and taken some sort of engineering job with Brant Industries the last she’d heard. Ian deserved more and asked for less.
Alexis wasn’t an engineer, she was a teacher. She’d declined Laurel’s offer and stayed close to the east coast, eventually returning to the Academy with a degree.
Next week. She would call them next week. It was always next week. And every time she put it off, she felt she needed a bigger and better occasion to call them. But this time, she swore, standing up again, it would be different.
She continued on her way to her classroom. At that time of morning, the students are either still in bed, or already at breakfast. But here and there, she saw signs of life.
On the quad between the Elliot and Prescott dormitories, a teenaged girl was moving with purpose, likely a straggler from the breakfast crowd. She was making her way by having her hair grapple tree branches and swing her along as she sat pretty in a throne of her own locks. A boy about her age was keeping pace with her by flying under his own power.
And on a bench at the junction between the main walk and the one leading to the athletics center, a boy was reading, oblivious to the rest of the world thanks to a set of ear buds in his ears, wirelessly connected to the palmtop computer he was reading from. He wasn’t glowing, or floating, or drooling acid, but most kids at the school didn’t. Most of them came to the Academy unsure of what exactly even turned their powers on or off. It was Alexis’s job to find out and explain it.
As she neared Lee Hall, she saw two men striding up the walk toward her. The sight of the badges on their belts made her stand up just a bit straighter and hold her breath in awe and respect.
Their badges featured an eagle surrounded by some sort of aura, carrying a lightening bolt in one talon and a cudgel in the other. It was the seal of the Psionic Enforcer Corps; men and women trained to protect the Academy and assist law enforcement when a psionic went ‘rogue’ and used their powers to criminal ends. Genuine heroes to a man.
Alexis had been offered Enforcer training, but she didn’t think she could handle it, especially using her powers in combat.
The two men passed her by with cordial nods. She didn’t recognize either of them, but that didn’t mean much. There were dozens of Enforcers and only a handful, like First Strike or Prometheus had made a name for themselves.
She was so wrapped up in thinking about the Corps, that she didn’t notice Irene Yearlong waving at her, or hear her name being called until the woman was right next to her.
“So what’re we day dreaming about today, short-timer?” The words and the other woman’s sudden presence made Alexis jump, much to Irene’s amusement. “Must have been something good.” She guffawed. Irene was one of those large women who weren’t simply fat, but large with all the lung capacity that came with it. Her laugh was one that made it sound as if each ‘ha’ was being punched into a large wad of dough.
Alexis pressed her hand to her heart in dramatic fashion. “Irene! You almost scared me right into a near death experience!”
The only made her laugh again. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So you owe me a favor. Call it even if you tell me what the blank expression was?”Alexis shook her head and shrugged. Irene was, in many ways, her mentor around the Academy, having been teaching there for seven years and the only member of the faculty willing to show someone else the ropes. She was the closest thing Alexis had to a best friend these days.
Irene wasn’t taking no for an answer. “Come on, short-timer.” There was Alexis’ nickname for being the new member of the Lee Hall staff, “I’m not going to shut up until I hear it.”
This was true. She wouldn’t. Alexis relented. “I was just thinking about how they wanted me to take the test for the Enforcers.”
Another guffaw. Irene knew Alexis was a psionic, but like the rest of the staff, had never seen her powers in action.
Alexis didn’t use them much, even in private because controlling black heat was only one step down from being a fire-starter; she could keep it merely warm with concentration, but if she slipped, she could easily ignite something. Luckily, it never went to full heat while in contact with her, or she wouldn’t have survived her teen years.
“Who in the world got it in his head that you were the hardened cop type?” Irene threw an arm around her shoulder, nearly taking the smaller woman off her feet. ‘Smaller’ being a relative term. Alexis as five foot nine and not exactly rail thin, but Irene was well over six feet and built like someone had swapped the bottom and center parts of a snowman and topped the whole thing off with a wig so blonde it made Sweden look raven-tressed.
A half-hearted laugh escaped Alexis as she caught her breath and walked with her colleague. “No idea, but I did get asked. Couldn’t you just see me out there, flying around, busting heads?”
Irene smirked. “You fly?”
“I don’t like it much.” Alexis lied, “But yeah.”
“Don’t like to fly?” Irene looked as if someone told her they hated sunshine and kittens. The shock seemed to keep her from even considering it was untrue. “But it seems like so much fun when the kids do it.” Approximately five percent of the Academy’s student body could fly and one hundred percent of them flew whenever they got the chance.
“I’m just strange that way.” Alexis shrugged. “I don’t like taking orbital shots for transcontinental flights either. I took one over the summer in high school and between that jolt at the start and knowing you’re leaving the Earth’s atmosphere… I’d rather spend the extra hours on a plane, thank you.”
They reached Lee Hall and walked around to the side where the staff entrance was located. Irene was still in the midst of a giggle-fit over Alexis’s fear of flying as she presented her ID badge and then her eye for biometric scanning.
“Oh, before I forget, it’s press time and you’re still the new girl.”
Alexis groaned. Last year and again at the start of the school year, she’d been similarly corralled into giving the Power Control department’s annual phone interview that would be long and awkward, and yet never see print. Press events and the open nature of them was part of how the Academy kept public support for itself and its graduates high, but in recent years, there were psionic celebrities to be hounded and the Academy had passed into amiable good will instead of hotbed of press attention.
“I hate these things.” She sighed, going through the scan herself while Irene waited with the door open. “They ask such asinine questions, and they think this is a school for prelates!” Saying ‘prelates’ always made her feel cheap. It was the media created word to get around trademarks around the word ‘superhero’ that had wormed its way into the common lexicon. She was a fan of calling a cape a cape, but didn’t want to sound out of touch.
Irene closed the door behind them as they started down the hall toward their respective classrooms. “Terrible, aren’t they? Now you know why we palm it off on the short-timer.”
“Please tell me they’re planning on adding someone else to the department next year.” Alexis shook her head.
“No such luck.” Irene said, “The budget is maxed out with the new hard room they’re putting in this summer.”
“Another one? When are they going to have enough?”
“Probably when we stop taking in kids that can level a normal classroom.” Irene said dismissively as they stopped at the door to Alexis’s classroom. “So. Lunch at Skeeter’s? I think Maggie from Evaluation wants to come too.”
“Sounds good.” Alexis agreed, using her ID to unlock the door. “See you are one then.”
Irene waved and headed on down the hall to her more distant classroom.
There was a low hum of the room’s systems powering up as the door opened. Lights along the edges of the ceiling illuminated a large, carpeted space populated by desks and chairs. Unlike everything else on the entire campus, these were simple, cheap furniture with no extra reinforcement or extra amenities. The administration had come to realize years ago that in control class, where all manner of ignition, crushing force, and in once case, the ability to melt wood was possible and seating arrangements took into account each student’s abilities and immunities, paying for ‘better’ chairs that were just going to be destroyed anyway was a sucker’s game.
Alexis’s chair and desk were a different story; a modern executive chair and desk situated atop a raised ‘stage’ that took up one corner of the room. Between it and the seat of desks was an open area where the holographic display on the desk could project, or transparent aluminum panels could be raised and polarized so a student could put their talents on display for the class with reduced risk to everyone involved.
Stretching her neck muscles from Irene’s rough handling, Alexis crossed the room and mounted the stage. From her purse, she produced her palmtop computer and placed it into the docking cradle on her desk. The holographic display automatically sprang to life, displaying a floating screen that was a higher resolution version of the palmtop’s own.
She took a seat and by gesturing at the screen, navigated to her lesson plan for the day. It was the week before spring break and she knew that other teachers were going to be giving up on actually teaching anything to the vacation distracted kids.
Control class wasn’t like that. At least not exactly. This week’s game plan was extracting promises from her kids to practice over the break and helping them brainstorm ways to do that safely. Thanks to the nature of psionic powers, each being unique on some level, this was inherently unfair. There was a girl in the class who created visual illusions from sound; she would have an easy time. There was another who could scream into existence a solid quarrel of sound that impacted with seven hundred pounds of force. She would have a… not easy time.
It was all fair game to Alexis. She reasoned this because they all needed to work on critical thinking and because control wasn’t a graded class. Either one gained satisfactory control over their powers or they took the class over next semester. A rare few took it again anyway to learn superior control, but that wasn’t an official class.
Yet. Alexis was lobbying for it. That was why she didn’t rock the boat on the commuter pod issue.
In addition to getting those promises, she also had a special surprise fro the class. While the academic teachers were showing mildly related movies in the doldrums ahead of spring break, she planned to take the kids into one of the hard rooms and having them compete in an obstacle course. The only rule: they had to use their powers in some way at each obstacle.
Hardly the intended purpose of the hard room’s holography, but it was the only economical way to run an obstacle course where in all honesty a good number of kids were going to opt to destroy their way through, even though the vast majority didn’t even have overtly destructive powers.
One thing she’d tried to incorporate into her lessons was the idea of creative power usage. The Academy’s official curriculum didn’t offer much in the way of that; it was concerned with making sure anyone with powers could turn them on and off if possible and if those powers were useful, that they could put them to ‘socially responsible’ ends.
Socially responsible, in terms of the Academy’s government subsidies meant construction, law enforcement, espionage and military applications with a minor in other obvious careers based on the power.
Alexis disagreed with this, based on her own experiences growing up as a psionic. The black heat didn’t help her in the career she loved, but as a teenager, she’d used it for everything and that attitude was how she’d discovered that she could swathe herself in it to fly, or with effort, use its energetic nature to bend light, rendering her blind, but invisible. On lazy nights, she still used it to cook. So wherever she could sneak it in, she gave the kids opportunities to think outside of the box with their powers.
Gesturing again at the screen, she opened her teacher’s notes, detailing her bare bones assessments about each student’s progress so far. She had to make some adjustments since word had come down that Paco Salvatore had left the school. It was even more of a pity than just the lost of a bright student. Paco had actually been the most advanced in any of her classes.
Unfortunately, at least in her opinion it was unfortunate, some kids just came to the Academy to get just enough control to suppress their gifts before leaving. It was a fact of life she remembered from her days as a student. Her own roommate left at the start of the second semester of their second year.
She had just called up her employee message box when a digital ringtone emerged from the speakers mounted in the desk and a dialog box appeared on screen: ‘Incoming Call – Caller Unknown Answer/Ignore’.
Probably the reporter. She sighed and took her phone earpiece from her purse pressed the button that connected it to her palmtop and through it, the school’s phone system. Then she selected Answer. “Hello?”
There were three low tones on the line and then a male voice, low and relaxed and with the slight gravel of age spoke. “This line is now secure.”
“Whu-buh?” replied the highly educated teacher.
“Hello, Miss Keyes.” the caller ignored her confusion.
“Hello.” She repeated, regaining equilibrium, “Sorry about that. I thought… nevermind. Who am I speaking to?”
“My name is George. It’s an honor to speak with you, young lady; I know you’re one of the good ones; an honest, dedicated teacher.”
A prideful smile came to her face. “Oh. Why thank you.”
“Which is why I’m contacting you instead of any of the others.” Before she could question that, he plowed on. “Tell me, have you been to the new Hayes Medical Building on campus?” The Hayes building had broken ground the year before she started, touted as necessary for serving an expending student population. That was before the budget problems.
“Um… no.” Alexis said, “It’s not finished yet.”
“What would you say if I told you that it’s been finished for a year?”
“That you’re wrong?” She guessed. “Look, what does this have to do with the interview? Are you investigating some kind of embezzlement deal that’s keeping the place from being completed?
The voice at the other end of the line sighed. “If only, Miss Keyes. But you won’t believe me based on hearsay. I respect that. So I will show this to you. Skip lunch for the day and instead go to the Molly Science Building, Room 318 at 1:34pm. Look out the window.”
“I’m not… who are you again?”
“I’ve told you everything you need Miss Keyes. For the children. Goodbye.”
The line went dead, followed by three tones like when she’s picked up. Another notification came up on screen: ‘Call Missed’.
She didn’t know how long she sat there staring at it in slack jawed confusion. The only thing that snapped her out of the thousands of explanations forming in her head was the arrival of the first few students for first period.
What had just happened? And why her?
More worrisome: what would she see from the window of Molly 318?
To Be Continued…