Liedecker Institute #6: Reflections in Steam Part 1

This entry is part 6 of 13 in the series Liedecker Institute Volume 1: Meet The Class

The alarm on Steampunk’s nightstand brayed insistently and for the first time, succeeded in its purpose of rousing the girl. It had taken a solid week to get her to the point that an alarm clock that didn’t sound like an emergency signal awakened her, but it was a step forward.

With precision one wouldn’t associate with someone just awake, she reached out and turned the alarm off before sitting up on the edge of her bed.

She’d never needed an alarm before. The first fourteen years of her life had been strictly scheduled by the Project Lead and carried out by various uniformed and helmeted staffers at the Generations Project facility concealed inside a Woodbridge Township, NJ factory.

Waking up there was different depending on which staff members were assigned to take her through her morning routine. Uniform attire and a rigid routine was meant to keep her from differentiating them from one another, but their voices and general attitudes toward her varied enough that seeing faces was a formality.

Some mornings, she would be shouted awake and led through her morning ritual by a steely grip and barked orders. Other mornings, she would be cautiously prodded awake and kept at arm’s length for the remainder of the morning. On rare mornings, someone would awaken her with soft words and genuine questions about her physical and emotional wellbeing.

Staffers who fit into that last category usually didn’t last long. Speaking to her kindly led to sneaking her candy or small toys and that inevitably led to their termination for ‘loss of objectivity’.

Out of force of habit, she stretched, following the same technique she’d been instructed in as part of her typical mornings at the factory.

Until six months ago, the factory was all that she’d known and not the whole of that; just her ten-foot cell, the room where she worked, and the corridor that connected the two. She vaguely remembered other areas such as the infirmary, but she could count her visits there on one hand.

Then came a night of chaos and confusion. There had been a multilevel power failure in the factory and then a firefight. Many Generations Project staff members had died or fled and Steampunk had found herself moved to a sub-level of McGuire Air Force Base, the ‘guest’ of a covert military branch she eventually learned was called Rogue Operations Counterintelligence Command, the ROCIC.

Suddenly everything was different. Everyone wanted to know who she was; how she felt. A team of doctors and psychologists under the direction of a woman named Patricia Masters examined and analyzed her for weeks on end.

They told her that what the Generations Project had done to her was wrong and that they would see that it was put right. Steampunk wondered why this was. After all, she was alive, undamaged and properly nourished.

There had been issues at McGuire. The first one was when the first doctor assigned to her had insisted on her removing her containment suit for her examination. Steampunk had tried to explain how her body secreted superheated water from her sweat glands and how her suit was designed to contain and safely channel the resultant steam to do work. The doctor wouldn’t listen.

The doctor and her assistant had been hospitalized with second degree burns over forty percent of their bodies.

Steampunk felt a tithe of remorse for that. But she had given ample warning. Still seated on the edge of her bed, she looked down at her current attire, acquired as a direct result of the scalding incident.

It was a full body suit in much the same style as her normal one, but instead of the complex assembly of thin layers of a custom meta-amarid, two types of silica aerogel and carbon fiber, coated in a Nephilia derived epoxy that everyone around her seemed to confuse for rubber (something she deigned to correct as the suit’s actual construction was restricted by Generations Project Class C permissions), it was simply beige cloth designed to wick moisture away from her skin and diffuse it into the air in a more controlled fashion.

The new suit, commissioned by Masters, definitely helped her sleep more comfortably, but at the cost of her room being transformed into a near sauna.

Luckily, her roommate, an upperclassman named Jada Devos, had no objections to living in a room with humidity well over sixty percent and temperatures steadily ten degrees above anywhere else in the dormitory. In fact, from where she sat, Steampunk could see the steadily expanding population of tropical plants Shannon was continually buying now that she had ‘her own greenhouse’.

Even ignoring the plants, the room they shared was a far cry from the ten-by-ten concrete block she’d grown up in. In the space, she’d been afforded a cot, a toilet, a water dispenser and a bathtub. The tub was a special necessity as she needed to thoroughly clean and vent her pores once every few weeks or suffer painful blisters from steam build-up under her skin.

She had access to a nice tub at the Institute, but she had to share it not only with her roommate, but with Joy Duvall and Margarita Clay Thomas, roommates who lived on the other side of the shared bathroom.

Finishing her stretches, she glanced at the clock. Five minutes after the hour. Without further dawdling, she got up and went into the bathroom.

Life in the Institute was a vast departure from that at the factory. And the largest difference by far was the privacy. Not just the ready abundance for anyone seeking it, just the simple presence of the concept.

From her earliest memories forward, she couldn’t remember ever truly being alone until her ‘rescue’ by the ROCIC. There had always been a staffer or technician, or researcher. Even when there was no one physically in the room with her, there were always cameras or two-way mirrors.

She stopped brushing her teeth to stare at herself in the mirror. Over the years, she had learned to discern two-way mirrors. This wasn’t one. The only person looking back at her was her.

It wasn’t a normal thing for her to regard herself in the mirror, but this time, she indulged herself.

She was slender; not athletic, not skinny. She was too valuable to the Generations Project to subject her to malnutrition, but her mind was also too important to waste time giving her anything but the minimum exercise. Her dull, blond hair would have been cut into a less obstructive bob by now, but over six months, no one had attended to it, so it now brushed her shoulders.

Under normal circumstances, her complexion would have been olive, but a life of no sun and LED only light left it looking oddly greenish. Even regarding herself in the mirror, her hazel eyes remained demandingly inquisitive.

After a moment, she blinked. Her reflection was slowly fading away behind condensation from the steam exuding from her. The mirrors she’d had growing up, or at least after her powers manifested, were treated to prevent that lest the researchers lost track of her.

Silently, she waited until the image of her in the mirror was little more than a vaguely familiar shape before wiping it clear and resuming brushing her teeth. She preferred life at the Institute to her old home, though she couldn’t quiet verbalize why. It had something to do with the mirror.

It was Laurel Brant who had arranged for her to be there; she had visited her at McGuire and unlike the others, talked to her plainly instead of trying to address her like a child or a mentally ill person.

The first thing she’d asked her was her name and Steampunk didn’t have a proper answer.

The staff, when not calling her ‘you’, usually called her ‘the girl’. After her powers manifested, they took to calling her ‘Steampunk’ almost exclusively.

As part of her duties at the factory, besides using her steam to power her section of it, she was tasked with committing the Project’s entire archive to her eidetic memory, including her own files and it seemed that the project built around her after she gained her powers really was codenamed ‘Steampunk’.

Still, it wasn’t a real name and she knew it. So she instead used a name that appeared frequently in her project file dating back to her birth; Alice Tatopoulos. For all she knew it really was her birth name.

Following a shower; another new habit she’d picked up at McGuire, she bought her suit into the bathroom and carefully examined it for wear or breeches. In the four years she’d been wearing it, she’d suffered a containment failure eight times and each time, nearby personnel had been badly burned and expensive electronic components destroyed.

After the last failure, the Project Lead mandated that she be taught to examine the suit herself. There were no more failures after that. She worked methodically, inspecting each seam and nozzle as she did.

Once she was satisfied that she wouldn’t be accidentally steaming her classmates, she returned to her room and retrieved her tablet computer before exiting into the hall. It was just unfortunate timing that she found herself leaving her room just as Betty “Rapunzel” Sinclair was coming down the hell.

A fellow resident of the third floor girls’ wing, Betty sat upon a litter formed of her own chestnut locks, carried aloft by six thick braids that moved like the legs of a giant spider. As always, she wore a sour expression of malice searching for an outlet.

“Out of the way, Rubber Girl.” Two stray tresses snaked out to shove Steampunk none too gently aside to make way for Betty’s passage even though the former hadn’t even been in her path.

Steampunk stood statue still, watching Betty’s retreating back with detached confusion. As far as she knew, she’d never done anything to give Betty a reason to take offense. In fact, in the week since school started, she’d never talked to Betty.

But that was the treatment she’d come to expect from the other girl.

Tammy Kaine, one of the group Steampunk had been spending much of her free time with, simply attributed it to Betty being a ‘stuck up witch’, but that didn’t strike Steampunk as a valid psychological interpretation.

Seeing Rapunzel disappear into the elevator at the end of the hall, Steampunk turned in the opposite direction; toward the large living area situated between the boys’ and girls’ wings on the third floor.

When she’d first arrived at the school, Laurel suggested that Steampunk should spend time with the other students to learn how to live a ‘normal’ life with the caveat that she shouldn’t do anything illegal or against school rules.

In advising her on how to interact with others, she told her not to assume that logic and science had a hand in all human interaction; to not over-analyze things. In some cases, especially with Betty, Steampunk found this difficult advice indeed to follow.

It had been part of her basic conditioning, dating back to as young as five years old when testing proved that she had an eidetic memory, for her to cross-reference new information with knowledge she’d already committed to memory from existent sources.

In the case of Betty or her equally ill tempered friend, Annette St John, Steampunk tried to apply knowledge from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 9th Edition, and The Analytical Guide to Behavioral Psychology. Despite her certainty that they suffered mental illnesses, neither book could offer a definitive diagnosis without further observation or interviews and there was roughly a gasoline soaked propane tank’s chance on the surface of the sun that she’d ever be able to carry that off.

Mulling over the problem, she didn’t realize that she’d arrived in the living area until she was several steps from the open archway that separated it from the girls’ wing.

The floor plan for the student living building, like the rest of the Institute was more in line with a university than a high school and the living area was no exception. The main room had a vaulted ceiling with a simple, but bright chandelier hanging down over a large, airy room. The center of the room was arranged around a 61” television; a roomy, semicircular couch flanked by a pair of plush recliners faced it with a low coffee table between.

To one side there was a game table designed to convert between several table games including pool and air hockey, along with an eight person table embedded with an OLCD screen designed to run a number of programmable board games. To the other, the space was kept clear to allow easy access to the two sound-proofed study rooms.

“Come on!” A voice whined. “You’ve gotta! They won’t be good if you don’t!”

The living area was on one side of an imaginary line one could walk between the boys’ side of the building and the girls’. The other side was bounded by two chest high walls, really the backs of two counters, with a gap between them leading into the kitchen.

In the kitchen, Tammy, armed with a spatula, was defending the stove top and the sizzling skillet resting on it from a Tabasco wielding Kura Akagi. The Japanese girl was floating about a quarter foot off the floor and trying desperately to juke around her friend to get at whatever was cooking.

“You’re not getting anywhere near those eggs with that stuff.” Tammy warned her off with lazy swats of the spatula. “You want it on your eggs, put it on your eggs, but we’ve both gotta eat these.”

“But this is how my dad makes them. You’ve got to cook the Tabasco into them.” Kura tried to rise up and over the other girl only to earn a swat on the head that worked remarkably well in causing her to sink to the ground.

“No.” Tammy said simply, regarding Kura like a naughty pet. “You can make it taste like I did that, deal?”

“It’s not the same.” Kura pouted.

“Aw.” Tammy feigned sympathy. “Cheer up. Go play with Steampunk.” Without warning, she grabbed Kura’s shoulder and span the floating girl around to face Steampunk before giving her a light shove in her direction.

Hot sauce and eggs were instantly forgotten as Kura propelled herself into the stoic blond. “Steampunk! Morning!” She hit off center, wrapped her arms around Steampunk’s neck and let her momentum take her one-hundred and eighty degrees around until she was floating from her back like a humanoid scarf.

Steampunk didn’t blink. Kura greeted all her friends like that and she seemed to take special pleasure in doing it to Steampunk.

“Hey, Steam.” Tammy waved with the spatula before turning back to her now safe eggs. “Did you see the hair-beast on your way here?” There was no end to Tammy’s nicknames for Betty.

“I did.” With Kura still floating with her arms around her neck, she stepped into the kitchen, transitioning from carpet to tile.

“And was she a witch to you again?”

“She pushed me and called me ‘Rubber Girl’.” Steampunk reported with a neutral expression.

“We should get back at her!” Kura concluded, her mouth three inches from Steampunk’s eardrum.

That was the usual ‘solution’ those two had for Betty’s attitude. Along with another friend, Phineas Michaels, they had so far sealed her and Annette’s rooms shut (with sap courtesy of Phineas’s powers) and turned Betty’s hair plaid. Needless to say, neither action made Betty any more friendly toward them.

Steampunk and the fifth member of their group, Phil Simms, had suggested telling the staff, but the others warned that involving teachers would only lead to retribution and to getting in trouble for pranks already pulled.

This time, Steampunk decided to remain silent on the count. Instead, she made her way to the faucet.

“Wait.” Tammy stopped her. At the same time, she took the eggs off the heat and dumped them on a plate. That done, she scurried over to a cabinet. “Last time, you used every cup in the kitchen and get everyone mad at you.”

Steampunk nodded reluctantly. “I will only use one glass from now on.”

“You don’t have to!” Kura finally let go, sliding off her back and landing on the floor.

“Ta-da!” Tammy pulled two stacks of glasses out of the cabinet, waggling them back and forth as if she was trying to get the lights to play off them. “Look what we had made for you.” Crossing the floor, she pressed one glass into Steampunk’s hand.

At first blush, it was a standard, eight once glass, but on the side was an icon; an interlocking S and P with the curves of the S and the loop of the P set off with gear teeth and the shaft of the P striated to represent a gear as seen in profile.

It was a childish design, but an endearing one.

Series Navigation<< Liedecker Institute #5: Meet the Class Part 5Liedecker Institute #7: Reflections in Steam Part 2 >>

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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