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A down arrow meant she had to go under it, but the cardboard barrier only had a clearance of about six inches from the floor. By now, Maya knew this was by design. She might not be able to fit through it normally, but her fiery form was more fluid. Part of the exercise was to see just how fluid, on top of seeing how well she could control her flight.
The answer to that second part was ‘very good’. As afraid as she was for everyone and everything around her when she was like this; composed of compact fire, she enjoyed every powers session that involved flying obstacle courses. And it seemed that enjoyment translated into skill.
She dropped down so close to the floor that she could see the grain in the material reflecting her firelight and focused on the gap ahead. Key to her success was forgetting the things that she ‘knew’ she couldn’t do. She had an incredible amount of control over the flames that made up her body, and if she didn’t think she could flatten out into a burning sheet, it wouldn’t happen.
It was harder than the teachers realized. Maya loved science and logic even before the night she lost her parents. Without them, she clung to it, seeking out libraries and free information kiosks. Learning new things distracted her, and things like Laws and the supporting equations helped her make sense of the world.
Except in the aspect of who and what she was. So much about descendants was labeled ‘more research is required’. Twenty years of such research was matched by twenty years of increasingly complex and esoteric powers. Just by being herself, Maya was both breaking and creating new ground in the field.
It might have destroyed her worldview. Instead it excited her, tempered only by the tragedy that had delivered this gift to her.
Right now, she wasn’t thinking of that. She was only thinking of passing under that gap without burning it. Being in fire form didn’t change her senses, so she had no easy way to be sure that all of her was thinned out enough to pass under the barrier, only trust in her practice.
The cardboard obstruction flashed over her. Immediately in front of her was another, this one with the arrow pointing up. It was a dizzying maneuver to turn at essentially two right angles before the whole of her body was past the first obstacle, but she managed it, flying free of the two hurdles without igniting them.
She found herself facing five paper targets arrayed in a semicircle before her. The last part of the course, and her worst. When the classes first started three weeks prior, Ms. Brant had offered Maya a deal to give her incentive to voluntarily take fire form:
Each hurdle passed without burning was worth one point each. This was fine with Maya, as it was her goal to learn not to burn things. However, Each target destroyed was worth ten points. This was not okay with Maya, as this was the exact thing she’d consented to being helped to avoid in the first place.
Then Ms. Brant revealed what the points were for: Each was a minute off her next non-obstacle course session. For that alone, Maya tried her best with the targets. Hitting all of them would effectively allow her to skip an entire uncomfortable powers session, such as those that consisted entirely of commanding fire, or altering burst of flames that she generated.
But it never worked out like that. If she flew in proportion to how much she enjoyed it, she hit targets by the same rubric. Any time she took one out, it was more or less an accident.
Maya hovered to a stop and took a deep breath. Not having lungs at the moment, she wondered if it was purely a cosmetic thing, but the intake of fresh air seemed to cause the flames at her core to flare brighter. Another point of data for her personal study.
She held her hands out to the sides, palms up and a pair of fireballs the size of baseballs formed in them. They’d found early on that she could project a jet of flame any way she wanted; by breathing it out, from the ends of her fists, or even as a pillar of fie from her chest. But she had terrible control and worse range with those.
Commanding an existing flame worked better. As long as it had oxygen and fuel, a fire would move in any direction she willed it to go, even against the normal direction of a spreading fire. It would even ignore fuel if she forced it to. The one caveat was that a flame couldn’t move where there was nothing to burn for long. And unless she wanted to make a very hot fire, empty air wouldn’t burn and fire couldn’t move through it the ways she needed it to.
But she could throw it. Just not very well.
The rule was that she got five shots at the targets that would count for taking time off. She rarely got time off from this. Most of the time, her underhand tosses didn’t reach the target at all.
Today, she was in a good mood. It was Friday, and since her sessions were in the morning, she got a free period at the end of the day when the general powers classes were being taken. At first, she devoted that time to studying, but Eddie introduced her to his friends; the ones her hung out with during those free periods. They never made particular plans, but it was always fun.
Her good mood translated into forgetting to only try timid lobs. She threw the first fireball overhand. But enthusiasm didn’t correlate to good aim and the shot blazed past the target without getting to within a foot of the outer ring.
She launched two more. Both missed in a similarly spectacular fashion. On the next throw, she slowed down and took her time lining up her throw. It flew in a wild, high arc that missed worse than ever. Sighing a little jet of flame, she conjured the last fireball.
On the one hand, she really wanted to knock some time off the next session; Ms. Brant wanted to see if Maya could generate explosive bursts and Maya wanted nothing to do with that, even if the reasoning was based around the idea that she should see whats he could do so she could avoid doing it accidentally. Why couldn’t she just fly?
On the other, She didn’t really want to get good at hitting things with fireballs. On occasion, there was temptation to do so.
She drew back her arm, trying to will her arm into throwing straight for once in her life, and let fly. It streaked in a straight line in the direction of the target. Unfortunately, that straight line was diagonal and downward. The fireball hit the plastic base of the target instead, catching it on fire.
Maya lowered herself to the ground and exhaled sharply. Going from fire form to normal was like having icy water thrown over her. The warmth that filled her and rolled around her drew inward, leaving only the room temperature behind. Her clothes suddenly felts as if they had weight again, after basically floating around her earlier.
She took in a deep breath, shivering slightly at the feel of cool air in her previously burning lungs. After composing herself, she looked up at what she was now sure was the primary camera in the room. “Does that count?” She asked, pointing at the target. The flames had finally reached the edges of the paper.
As always happened when something burned around her, the flames pointed toward Maya instead of upward.
The answer didn’t come from the speakers concealed around the room, but from the entrance, from which Ms. Brant entered. “I think we can count that. I know you’re not looking forward to the exercises we’re doing tomorrow.
“But there is one more thing for today.” She produced a lantern from the leather messenger bag that hung off her shoulder. It wasn’t very big, or ornate, mostly a glass globe sitting on top of a ceramic base with a key in the side to control the wick. A wire handle attached to it at the top.
Maya regarded it with curiosity as the teacher also took out a splint of wood. “I didn’t think we had time for anything else.” She said timidly, not wanting to sound obstinate.
Ms. Brant lit the splint off the burning target and used that in turn to light the lantern.
“We don’t. This is more of a homework assignment.” She offered the lantern, which Maya took with a look of confusion. “You told me that fire acts increasingly unnatural the longer it stays in proximity with you. I’m curious what would happen over an extended period.”
Maya’s spine stiffened. “I…” She couldn’t question an adult, that would be wrong. “That is, what if something goes wrong? I don’t know if I should be around open flames.”
“That’s why it’s in a lantern.” Ms. Brant explained and motioned for Maya to leave the hard room with her. “If something goes wrong, just close the vents and you’ll snuff it.”
Giving the lantern another dubious look, she nodded, conceding that she was stuck with the teacher’s decision. Already, the little tongue of flame was consuming fuel more slowly, as if it knew there was a limited amount and was rationing. The song it was singing in her head was slowing down too; that’s how it started.
“I’d like you to keep that near you whenever it’s convenient and report anything unusual to me at the start of your sessions, okay?”
Again, Maya just nodded, knowing that if she opened her mouth again, she might question the woman’s sanity.
Ms. Keyes was waiting outside with two large water bottles. They’d learned quickly that coming back from fire form left Maya slightly dehydrated and ravenously hungry. The girl took the first bottle gratefully and downed it quickly.
“Good job today, Maya.” Ms. Keyes said. She was getting better at not edging dangerously close to baby talk with Maya, but her tone still dripped with a ‘I’m playing with a new, timid kitten’ quality. Maya was starting to warm to the woman though; she was the one that came up with the obstacle courses and other fun sessions that didn’t involved burning things. “Head on up and get breakfast. You finished so quick this morning, you’ll probably be first in line.”
Maya smiled at this. “Thank you.” She said in a small voice. She grabbed the other water bottle before she left, stowing it securely in the front pocket of her hoodie.
Alexis waited until the doors were closed behind the little redhead before turning to Laurel. I see she took the lantern. I wasn’t sure that was going to work. You know how nervous she is about fire outside of the hard room.”
“She’s getting less skittish about her powers.” Laurel said, “Plus, now that I think about it, she never says ‘no’ directly when I ask her to do something. That can’t be healthy.”
“Patricia says she still refuses to talk in her therapy sessions. She’s as bad as Alice that way.” Alexis closed the hard room doors one at a time and used her hand print to seal it once more.
“If anyone can get through to her, I’m sure Dr. Masters can.” Laurel didn’t get along with the ROCIC’s expert in psionic psychology, partly because the woman still insisted on using ‘psionic’, which was linguistically, scientifically, and now socially a misnomer. She still respected her body of knowledge though.
Alexis changed the subject. “So you still think the ‘weirdness’ she says goes on with fire is similar to you-know-who’?”
As they both headed for the elevators themselves, Laurel shrugged. “I don’t want to put my money down on anything right now. It’s very hard to differentiate independent manifestation from unconscious manipulation. Some experts still maintain that there’s no such thing and that it’s all unconscious action.”
“But if you had to guess?” Her friend prompted.
“I can’t discount what I saw off the bat.” Laurel admitted. “One five separate occasions, the fire didn’t just point toward her, it moved toward her; tracked in on her. And it moved to avoid obstacles when it did.”
Eddie and Phil were playing air hockey on the flat topped, touch screen table in the lounge when Maya came in. The former smiled and waved to her, costing himself a point and the game in the process. He didn’t seem to mind.
“Hey Maya.” He said brightly. Phil smirked at him when his back was turned. “How was your day?”
They didn’t share any classes; though a freshman on paper, she was taking Junior level Biology, and Sophomore level Calculus and Literature. Eddie, by virtue of a short period of tutoring during the semester after the Academy closed, was in World History instead of the American History class most of the freshman class attended. And though he often tried to get away, he spent most lunches with Betty’s friends, where Maya was persona non grata.
In the halls, it was a different story. Eddie turned up more often than not to walk with her during the class change, idly chatting with the quiet girl about whatever currently had his attention. And every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, there was the free period.
They hung out with Eddie’s group of friends during that time, but they gravitated toward each other. Maya noticed, but couldn’t bring herself to comment on it, and as confident as he always seemed, Eddie was evasive on the subject himself.
“Good.” Maya answered. Quiet didn’t begin to describe her. Most of the time, she made even Arkose look like a chatterbox. Except on certain subjects. “But Biology was amazing. We talked about living examples of evolution. Did you know that just sixty years ago, the average white tailed deer was fifty pounds heavier and had a freeze instinct in response to sudden motion or light? A century and a half of cars was enough selective pressure that the lighter and more apt to bolt deer bred more, so most deer in this part of the country are really tiny now.”
Being from Nevada, Eddie had never even seen a white-tailed deer, much less been able to compare them to their ancestors. But Maya was and it got her so excited that he couldn’t help but smile.
“Really? That’s pretty cool.” He encouraged, hoping that being talkative about that sort of thing would lead her to be more talkative about other things. As it was, if Biology class was having a review day, conversation became wholly his responsibility.
Maya nodded enthusiastically. “And then there’s elephants. There’s a theory, that they managed to consciously save their own species by the females purposefully picking males with smaller tusks, meaning their young stood a better chance at not getting poached.”
“I’m not sure about how I feel about that. One the one hand, cool, good for the elephants. But on the other, if they’re smart enough to do that, they’re smart enough to know who it was that’s been killing them all this time.” He grinned. “And you know what they say: an elephant never forgets—Revenge.”
Maya laughed. So did Phil. The later had gone over to one of the chairs in the lounge and flopped down. “That would make a hell of a movie. ‘Blood and Ivory’. It writes itself.”
The lounge door opened and Arkose trundled in with her usual uncaring air. She acted like she was cool and aloof to the group, but she always sought them out during the free period. Joy wasn’t far behind her, catching the door and holding it for the person behind her.
Everything seemed to go on pause, and Maya felt her nerves go on edge.
The new arrival was Steampunk. The girl was in the same strange suit she apparently wore every day and carried a large duffel bag over her shoulder. She stared right at Maya with the same calculating intensity she gave to everything.
Maya felt like she was on a slide, beneath a microscope.
“She asked to come.” Joy said innocently. It was no secret that Joy’s friendship was for sale to all and the price was saying ‘hi’. If Betty’s simmering hatred of her was just a tiny bit less blatant, Joy would still be making overtures of friendship to her too.
So it was no surprised that the girl didn’t say no when asked. What was surprising was that Steampunk asked. Alice Tatopoulos didn’t work at making friends, or ask to be included. She didn’t seem to care while all the same accepting any invitation offered.
Being nearly as friendly as Joy, though not half as outgoing, Maya wanted to be friends with Alice; felt she deserved friends as much as anyone. But the way the other girl looked at her always made her uncomfortable. With everyone else, the strange girl stared them down like she was recording their behavior for an experiment.
But with Maya, that gaze was settled, incurious. Like she already knew everything. And what Maya feared more than anything was for anyone, even her new friends and Eddie, knowing all there was to her.
To Be Continued…