Liedecker Institute #7: Reflections in Steam Part 2

This entry is part 7 of 13 in the series Liedecker Institute Volume 1: Meet The Class

“…discussed, the Red Scare actually refers to two separate periods in the twentieth century, both of which had serious socio-economic and cultural consequences well into this century despite neither period officially lasting more than a decade.

The second Red Scare led directly into the Cold War. Actually, I have an interesting anecdote about the Cold War involving my great grandfather…”

Mrs. Melissa Winnifred, a middle aged woman with an unusually high pitched voice and no compunctions against using it, was going into another of her stories. Standing in front of the class and trying to keep an eye on the digital projection on the wall, she didn’t notice the subtle shift in attitude among the students.

They were all familiar with Mrs. Winnifred’s tendency to distract herself with her own anecdotes. With the right questions and requests to elaborate, she could and would talk through the entirety of class, realize this too late, and assign what she should have covered in class as reading instead of actual homework.

It didn’t hurt that most of her stories were actually entertaining as well. Entertaining, that is, if one actually listened to them.

Steampunk didn’t. As per her usual, she was using the class time to read ahead. The unit that included the first Red Scare was Chapter 3 of Hollister and Watt’s The Twentieth Century. She was delving into Chapter 6, the Great Depression and if she hadn’t limited herself to reading only during class time and as part of reading assignment, she likely would actually have been up to the Cold War.

As in most of her classes, she was seated under an air conditioning duct in order to dissipate some of the heat she bled off. Some of the other students in similar positions would shiver sometimes, she noticed. Because they were cold. She rarely felt cold, even as the icy blast of the air conditioner bore down on her neck.

She caught herself watching the other students. One of them, who she knew as Phil Simms’s roommate, Eddie Argent, wasn’t shifting uncomfortably because of the air conditioning, she now realized, but because he’d caught her staring at him.

Forcing her eyes back to the text on her screen, she meditated on this. It wasn’t the first time she’d gotten that reaction; besides Kura and Tammy, and to a lesser extent, Phineas, people reacted badly to being…

Studied. That was the word. It was what she did, what she’d been told to do: learn from the other students. Except Heisenberg proved to be spot on with his Uncertainty Principle and she did change the things she was observing. Namely, she changed them from average, albeit psionicly gifted teenagers into, as Tammy put it ‘extremely scuzzed out’ teenagers who though Steampunk was ‘gonna probe them or something’.

Laurel Brant had only told her to spend time with and learn from them, not make them comfortable. Not that she knew how if she wanted to. Which led her to wonder if she did want to. Certainly a lack of ‘scuzzing out’ would be welcome, but it wasn’t her responsibility; no one asked her to deal with it.

Pushing those issues out of her mind, she returned to her reading, only vaguely registering Mrs. Winnifred’s voice as the woman went on about her ancestor’s experience with being blacklisted.

Class time flashed by in a blur of digital pages for Steampunk. And sure enough, the homework for the night was reading the rest of Chapter 3; all the better that she was just finishing Chapter 7. Gathering up her computer, she filed out with the other students, on the way to third period.

“Excuse me.” A hand touched her arm with the cautiousness of a person trying to pick up a rattlesnake. “You’re Alice, right? Alice Tatopoulos?”

Thought she honestly didn’t know that true answer to that question, she was getting used to being called by that name. She stopped and turned toward her questioner, who turned out to be a bronze skinned girl her age who she only knew from seeing her in the company of Betty and her friends.

The other girl predictably squirmed under Steampunk’s gaze, awkwardly avoiding both th eye contact and the passing bodies in the hall. It soon became clear to her that the stare was Alice’s way of acknowledging her question and that it was her turn to speak again.

Braving the deconstructing gaze, she tried her best to put on a friendly smile. “I’m Rita. Ms. Brant asked me to tell you that you’ll be meeting her in the EC, room 212.”

Steampunk didn’t pay any attention to the passersby moving past and in some cases bumping into her as she digested this information. She assumed that EC meant the student enrichment center, a building on campus she’d never visited because she had no classes there. Why Laurel Brant would want to meet her there was a mystery.

“Thank you.” she said simply and turned to go in that direction, only to be interrupted by Rita’s voice.

“Actually, I’m supposed to walk you there.”

Predictably, this resulted in another calculating stare from Steampunk. “Why? I’m not hurt and I know the way; I’ve read the emergency evacuation plans.”

Rita chewed her lip. Ms. Brant had told her to walk with Alice and try and be friendly with her. That wasn’t something you just told someone to their face though. “I have no idea.” She lied. “But I really don’t want to get in trouble.”

Another long stare and Steampunk nodded. “I will walk with you.”

“Great!” Rita forced a cheerful grin onto her face and led the way.

Before they even stepped out of the building and into the sunlit quad, the two girl expedition had grown silent and uncomfortable. Steampunk kept pace with Rita, but two steps behind. It made conversation difficult.

At one end of the green space, a class of about ten students, all dressed in institute issued jumpsuits was gathering: the flight class. Among their number, she spotted her friend Jacob Richmond, his striking physique drawing her eye even from that distance. With him were two more of her clique-mates (she didn’t feel right calling them her friends), Davian Hightower and Annette St. John.

It was too far for them to notice her and in spite of herself, she felt relief at that. She knew it was a terrible thing to think, but being seen with Steampunk would earn her ridicule from her so called social group, Jacob and his friend, Eddie Argent not withstanding. There was a strict social order and people like Hightower and his girlfriend, Rapunzel (really Betty Sinclair, but hardly anyone called her that anymore) lived to enforce it.

To mitigate the guilt of her teen-aged pettiness getting the best of her, she tried to talk to Steampunk again.

“Look. Flight class.” She gestured casually. “If you got to choose powers, I’d trade in mine for that. Not even any other power to go with it, just flying. It looks like so much fun.”

There was silence for a handful of steps before; “What powers do you possess, Rita Clay Thomas?”

Rita blinked. “I… didn’t tell you my whole name. How did you know it?”

“I know everyone’s names. I’ve read the student directory. Your room extension is 20238. You share it with Joy Duvall, who is the younger sister to Faith Duvall, the—“

“Okay. I understand.” Rita interrupted the torrent of information.

Steampunk nodded smartly. “You didn’t supply the data requested.” She observed after a few more steps.

“Hmm?” They were more than halfway to the enrichment center and she couldn’t imagine this going any worse.

“I asked about the nature of your powers.” Was the blunt reply.

“Oh. Right, sorry.” Rita shrugged innocently and thought a moment on how to best explain her powers. It never went well and it ended up confusing people more until she displayed her powers outright. Just before Steampunk could open her mouth to ask again, Rita held up a hand to cut her off. “It’s sort of hard to explain, so let me show you.”

Licking her lips, she took a deep breath. “I usually have an instrument or at least a speaker playing tunes, but I discovered what I can do while I was humming.” To her surprise, the surgical stare Steampunk usually employed softened to mere interest.

A few more deep breaths and Rita started humming. It started out tuneless and low, but slowly became more harmonic as she built and image up in her head.

The way her power had been explained to her was that it worked in two parts. First, it gave her a unique form of the neurological condition known as synesthesia; unique in that she could choose when and if she could interpret sounds as shapes and colors and vis-versa. Second, it gave her the ability to project her perceptions psychically to anyone within five hundred feet. With a liberal application of her imagination, she could twist those perceptions to fit her mental ideal for the sound.

All told, the practical effect of this was the air around her appearing to shimmer with colors for a few seconds before being filled with colorful butterflies who fluttered and danced to the melody she hummed.

Steampunk stopped walking and suddenly realizing that she was walking alone, Rita faltered in her humming. The butterflies froze in mid-flight, distorted, then faded from view.

“I’m sorry.” Rita was quick to turn back to Steampunk.

“Why?”

“For my power catching you by surprise. I shouldn’t have sprung it on you without warning.”

“You did surprise me.” Steampunk conceded, starting to walk again. “But there is nothing to apologize for. The nature of your power is one I have never observed.”

Rita had to run a few steps to catch up with her again. “But why’d you stop walking?”

“I was observing, that I might recall the phenomena later.” was the immediate answer as the two girls reached the doors of the enrichment center. Steampunk held the door for Rita. “Thank you for allowing me to observe.” She added once the door was closed. “You were under no obligation to do so.”

“I like my power.” Rita shrugged. “But you’re welcome anyway.” She led the way to the elevator.

For a time, as they waited for the car to come down to their level, both were silent.

“There was also societal pressure for you not to do so.” Steampunk remarked quietly. “Most of those you associate with do not tolerate my presence.”

“Betty and Annette.” Rita frowned. “It’s easier to count the number of people they do tolerate, actually.” The elevator opened and she used the act of entering and selecting floors; third for herself and second for Steampunk, to cover her hesitation. “I’m sorry about how they treat you. And everyone else for that matter.”

She almost jumped at the look she got when the blond girl heard that. It wasn’t the strict, analytical eye everyone had come to expect from the girl named Steampunk. Instead, it was a less intense, more honest curiosity, mixed with a hint of an emotion Rita never expected from the strange girl: shock.

Granted, it was the dull kind of shock of the kind usually associated with cattle observing oncoming trains and Hollywood starlets in their first role, but it was still real and alien to that usually implacable face. It soon passed and Steampunk was back to doing what she did best: collecting information.

“Why do you associate with them?”

Rita felt her face heat up. It was the question she had to assume was on the lips of half the school even just a week in, but everyone else had more social tact than to ask. Including herself.

Alone in the elevator with the sedate and stoic Steampunk, she felt almost like she was in a confessional. The chances were better than the sun setting at night that she didn’t even know enough to judge her on it, after all.

“I… wanted to be popular.” She admitted. “I’ve never been and this was my chance to be part of the popular kids.”

“But they are not popular.” Steampunk observed. “By my unofficial sampling from conversations I’ve overheard or engaged in, seventy-six percent of the student body dislikes or strongly dislikes Annette St. John. They have given her a disparaging nickname of Tantrum. These numbers skew even more negative for Davian Hightower and Betty Sinclair.”

This didn’t actually surprise Rita in the slightest, but she feigned it anyway, if only to be polite to people she spent a lot of her time with. “T-that can’t be right. They’re not that hated…”

The door opened and Steampunk put a hand out to keep them from closing. “I can conduct a formal survey if you would like.”

Rita forced a smile. “No, you don’t need to. I’ve got my reasons to be friends with them.”

“But I have already disproved—”

“Um, Ms. Brant’s waiting for you, Alice.” Rita said quickly. “You don’t want to keep her waiting.”

Steampunk fixed her with another stare before nodding slowly. “Yes. Thank you, Rita Clay Thomas.”

“No problem.” Rita smiled as the doors closed, dropping it instantly once they were shut. She’d been wrong. Steampunk’s lack of understanding made explaining herself worse, not better. “I don’t want to be popular with everyone. I just want to be popular with someone.”

***

EC 212 was a large art room, one of that would become the second art room when the school grew large enough to need it. Until then, it served as a walk-in supply closet for the active art room because it was closer to the real one.

Canvases, cases of paints, vast reams of paper, and tubs and tubs of clay were neatly arranged on shelves that invaded every wall but one that was more window than plaster and looked out over the back lot where the teachers parked.

By the time Steampunk arrived, Laurel had a study folding table set up, along with two chairs, one of which she occupied by turning it backward and resting her arms on the back. She’d also conscientiously set out three bottles of water on the far side of the table.

Steampunk stopped in the doorway upon seeing Laurel sitting there. “You wanted to speak with me?”

“I did.” Laurel said in the same tone a mother would use with a timid child. “Come on in and have a seat, Alice.”

Steampunk closed the door and made her way to the chair, sitting mechanically. Her eyes flicked to the water. “May I have a drink?”

“Of course. You can have all three, Alice, I bought them for you.”

Without anymore prompting, Steampunk opened the closest bottle and promptly drained it without pause. Laurel sat in complete silence while she drank her fill. Only when the second bottle was down by a third of it’s precious liquid did Steampunk pause for more than screwing open a bottle. “Thank you, Laurel Brant.”

“You’re welcome.” Laurel gave her a matronly smile. “So, Mr. Tully says that you’ve already shown maximum proficiency with Geometry and that there’s really nothing more that he can teach.”

“I was instructed in collegiate level mathematics by the time I was ten years old.” Steampunk offered by way of explanation.

“We understand that now.” said Laurel. “And I’d like to correct that. Seeing as how you’re not going to learn anything if we keep you in Geometry, I was wondering if you’d like to take a different class in its place.”

Steampunk nodded stoically. “That would be optimal for my education. What class would you require I attend?”

“It’s not a requirement.” Laurel cautioned. “We’ll only do this is if it’s something you would like to take. If you don’t want to do this, we can try something else.”

“I understand.” Steampunk replied evenly.

Laurel didn’t even blink at the lack of enthusiasm. That would come later, when the girl finally saw fit to express it. “So, I was reviewing the interview you gave to Patricia Masters right after they found you. I noticed that you mentioned that the duties you liked best from…” She stumbled awkwardly, “before… was designing machines in the computer.”

“I said that it was the duty I preferred to perform.” corrected Steampunk.

“Does that mean that you didn’t enjoy doing it?”

There was a long pause as Steampunk thought it over. Whether or not she enjoyed any of her former duties in the Project was never the point. The point had always been her results. At least until she’d met Laurel Brant.

“I would rather perform design duties than never perform them again.” She concluded.

“I thought so.” Laurel gave her an approving look. “Then starting tomorrow, instead of Mr. Tully’s class, you’ll report to this room and I’ll not only help you design things on your own, but I’ll teach you to fabricate it too. How does that sound?”

For almost a solid minute, Steampunk only stared. She didn’t understand why Laurel was doing these things for her. And she didn’t quite understand why it was so pleasing to her. Not that she showed it outwardly. To Laurel, she only bowed her head deeply and said, “Thank you, Laurel Brant. I am appreciative of this opportunity.”

“You’re more than welcome, Alice.” Laurel replied.

“May I make a request?”

“Of course, go ahead.”

“Will I be able to walk with Rita Clay Thomas tomorrow was well?”

End Reflections in Steam.

Series Navigation<< Liedecker Institute #6: Reflections in Steam Part 1Liedecker Institute #8: Make Your Own Luck Part 1 >>

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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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