- LI: Sophomore Year #1 – Rags to Rags Part 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #2 – Rags to Rags Part 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #3 – Rags to Rags Part 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #4 – Rags to Rags Part 4
- LI: Sophomore Year #5 – Rags to Rags Part 5
- LI: Sophomore Year #6 – Rags to Rags Part 6
- LI: Sophomore Year #7 – Gnome and Goo Part 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #8 – Gnome and Goo Part 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #9 – Gnome and Goo Part 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #10 – Gnome and Goo Part 4
- LI: Sophomore Year #11 – Gnome and Goo Part 5
- LI: Sophomore Year #12 – Gnome and Goo Part 6
- Liedecker Institute Annual #4
“Early lunch today, Maya?” Lucy Black asked of the girl who’d just walked into her cafe.
Maya seemed upbeat, though in her usual low-key manner. The little fire creature she called Soot peeked out of her tangle of red hair and waved its… Lucy guessed it was an analog for its arm… in greeting. “Yes, Ms. Lucy, Mr. Davis left early, so I didn’t have Calculus today.”
“None of your friends are in that class?” Lucy roughly folded the rag she’d been wiping the lunch counter with and sat it down near the register. The morning rush had been long over and there were only a few customers in the shop, all already at their tables and booths, so she had time to chat. That went double for the shy girl who often seemed like she needed a good chat.
Hopping up on one of the stood at the lunch counter, Maya nodded. “Kura, Tammy and Olivia are all in Algebra II, and both Alice and Eddie are in Trigonometry, so… yeah it’s just me.”
That made Lucy a little glad. Maya’s friends were good kids and all, but they overshadowed the quiet girl by far and Kura especially was viciously protective to boot. The only times Maya opened up to pretty much anyone were the times she were alone or with Eddie. In the latter case, there was plenty of nervous reluctance involved as well. On the rare occasions Maya came into the cafe alone, Lucy got to see more of the girl Maya was desperately trying to hide for whatever reason.
“So would you like your usual, or are we celebrating missing Calculus?” Lucy asked with a smile.
Maya smiled back, but refused to make eye contact. “It’s not really celebrating… I mean maybe if it was Literature… and I definitely wouldn’t be happy if Biology was canceled even if Dr. Kingsbury is kind of mean—” She cut off in a squeak and peered up at Lucy. “You won’t tell him I said that will you?”
It took an effort for Lucy not to laugh out loud. She still snickered. “Maya, from the couple of times I’ve met the guy while catering for the Institute, I would say much, much worse things about him.”
That made Maya smile, though she quickly hid it as if ashamed. “Erm… I guess I could celebrate, maybe?”
“Excellent.” Lucy said, more than happy to reinforce the girl’s tentative enthusiasm. “What’ll it be?”
The little redhead took a few minutes to study the menu. In the meanwhile, Soot scrambled down from his perch at the crown of her head to her shoulder where he hopped up and down in a fair imitation of an excited child. Without even looking at him, Maya gave an amused smile and relayed to Lucy, “Soot would like a basket of fries please.”
More than a year of owning the favorite hangout of the Institute kids meant that Lucy didn’t bat an eye. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time Soot, who she assumed was part of Maya’s powers, ordered and ate something himself. Well ate might have been inaccurate; he consumed fries in the same way wildfires consumed woodland.
“Sure thing.” Lucy said, heading over to put a fresh load of fries in the fryer. “Have you made up my mind yet?”
“Um…” Maya peeked at the menu again. “Can I have the cheeseburger sub and my own order of fries, please?”
Lucy nodded as she dropped the basket of fries into hot grease. “Of course. Oh, and by the way, the pie today is apple, but I might have saved a couple of slices of yesterday’s apple for some of my best customers.” In fact, she’d saved three because Maya, Kura and Tammy all loved her apple pie and hadn’t been in the day before to get some. Considering how much business the girls gave her, a few slices of pie was a small sacrifice.
Maya’s eyes lit up. “R-really? Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.” said Lucy, noticing that Maya’s stutter had made a sudden return. That wasn’t a good sign and sure enough, she noticed the girl stiffen out of the corner of her eye. Before she could ask what was wrong, the door chime went off and someone new entered.
It was Zane, who was tapping away at his top-of-the-line palmtop as he lazily floated in. Without taking his vaguely glowing eyes off the screen he said, “Hey, Lucy? Your catering thing: is that just for the school or can anyone hire you.”
Casting a slightly worried look at Maya, who was now staring straight ahead like a deer desperately hoping its freeze reflex will keep it hidden, Lucy turned her attention to Zane. “I’m not going to say no to more work, Zane. I’m guessing you have something in mind?”
Zane finally looked up and spied Maya, stopping where he was and hovering indecisively. “Um, well… it’s kind of my birthday next week and I asked my dad if, as my present, he’d pay for a party and he said yes. I figured it’d be a good way to you know, get to know everyone…” His eyes flicked to the back of Maya’s head, “… let them know I’m not such a bad guy.”
“Well I don’t think anyone thinks you’re a bad guy.” Lucy said. From her vantage point, she could see the troubled, guilty expression on Maya’s face. Despite part of her wondering if it was the right course of action, her mouth had no such common sense and asked, “Right, Maya?”
Both Maya and Zane flinched, making Lucy’s heart lurch with guilt. She had no idea why Maya had her minor freak-out when Zane came around and now she was wondering if they might be more of a reason than Maya’s shyness and Zane’s protomorphism. She was about to say something to give them both an out when Maya took a deep breath and turned to face Zane.
She did it suddenly as if to keep herself from stopping. Zane moved back a little, blinking in confusion. It took her a second to start talking, and when she did, the stutter was back in full force. “I-I know you and Eddie talked, Zane, a-and I’m really sorry for acting the way I do around you.”
Her eyes drifted to the floor. “I-it’s not your fault.. I-it’s just that m-my powers… I’ve… got special senses a-and they tell me t-that… I could h-hurt someone like you really badly.”
It was at that point that everything fell into place for Lucy. A quick glance at Soot, who was now torn between watching the deep fryer and Zane with equal (and now a bit unsettling) intensity completed the whole picture. Maya’s powers had to do with fire and Zane was swathed in layer upon layer of flammables. He never showed anything but his eyes, so he may well have been entirely flammable and somehow, Maya could apparently sense this, as she reacted before seeing him.
Zane seemed to reach the same conclusion. “Oh… I get it.” His eyes dimmed a fraction, the brightened. “But it looks like you’ve got really good control though, right?”
“It’s not perfect though…”
“Mine’s not perfect either.” Zane said in a tone that made it clear he was smiling under his hood. “But I’m not worried that I’ll start making people’s clothes unravel and fall off, so you shouldn’t worry about hurting me either, okay?”
Lucy raised an eyebrow at this. “Wait. You can do that?” It hadn’t really crossed her mind, but control over clothing was probably a font of temptation for a teenaged boy.
“Heehee… maybe we can forget I brought it up?” Zane asked, rubbing the back of his head.
Their exchange had brought a tiny giggle from Maya, but she blushed and covered it. Zane too that was a good excuse to change the subject. “But seriously, do you and Eddie wanna come to my birthday party? It’s gonna have Lucy’s awesome food.”
“Me and…” Maya blushed brighter when she realized that Zane had pinned her and Eddie as a couple. “Oh, well if he wanted to go…”
“Dude, just ask him, I’m sure he’ll want to go.” said Zane. “Not that it’s exactly going to be an exclusive party because it’s going to be in one of the Institute’s multi-purpose rooms, so pretty much anyone can come… but still, you know.”
Maya did and nodded. “Thank you, Zane.”
“No problem.” He floated over to the counter, making a point not to shy away from the young fire-starter. “So Lucy, here’s what I was thinking for the party food…”
Betty knew that her day was going to get worse when she spied a pointy red hat on her way to her room after class. The person under said hat always made her days worse just by existing. Unlike Akagi, it wasn’t even due to some sort of mutual animosity. The Gnome, in her opinion, gave all descendants a bad name.
In Betty’s estimation, people very wisely had an aversion to things that were strange and alien. Therefore, it behooved all descendants to prove that just because they were, well, inherently superior by dint of their birth, that they could still fit into the greater society no matter how tragically mundane the people who made up that society might be.
The Gnome did not conform to this ideal. He talked weird, he acted weird; and worst of all, he was both loud and proud about it. No amount of her best shaming could change that either; he just barreled right on through any barbs directed at him with what could only be called jaunty aplomb. Even Akagi was merely crude and eccentric.
Seeing The Gnome waiting for her by the door to her room meant she would have to talk to him, something she didn’t have the patience for… ever. So she tried to simply ignore him and go right for her door, sending a few tendrils of her hair to open it for her.
Unfortunately, The Gnome pushed off the wall he’d been leaning against and stepped into her path. He tipped his hat and said, “Greetings, Hirsute Harridan.”
Betty had no idea what those words meant, but he said them pleasantly, so she didn’t launch him down the hall with her braids.
“What do you want, Troll.”
“Gnome. The Gnome, actually.” said The Gnome replacing his hat. He reacted as if she’d just made an honest mistake. “The Gnome wished to speak with you regarding Virginia Russo.”
That made Betty raise an eyebrow. “Goo-Girl? What about her?”
For the first time, The Gnome’s face showed a shadow of dissatisfaction. “The Gnome hung out with her a couple of days ago. As is usual for The Gnome’s excursions, it was a rollicking adventure… actually more so this time than most.”
Betty gave a noble woman’s laugh and rolled her eyes. “And here I thought that even the lowliest of the freshmen would know to avoid you. Why am I supposed to care?”
At this, The Gnome removed his hat and after some rummaging, came up with his palmtop. “The Gnome thought you might wish to see some pictures. He held up the device, which was displaying the image of what looked to Betty like a robotic crab with guns mounted on it.
“Okay… so what the hell is this?”
“Just robot crab unleashed upon us by the nefarious Dr. Perilous?”
Betty snorted. “Bullshit.”
“Ah, not so, Flocculent Frail. There’s a police report and everything. But what The Gnome really wanted to show you was this…” He clicked to the next image, revealing a pile of ruined metal vaguely resembling the crab-bot from before.
“What’s this?” Betty tilted her head trying to figure it out.
“That would be the Cancerous Clockwork Crustacean after the face. The Gnome is proud to say the blasted, melted claw was The Gnome’s doing. But the rest was Virginia’s ‘goo’. The Gnome especially likes where she bent three-inch steel plates here,” he pointed in succession, “here, and here.”
Betty blinked at the image and slowly looked back at The Gnome. “What do you mean her ‘goo’ did that? It’s gray snot she sweats out and can kind of shape. This looks more like something Annette would do with her TK, or Hightower could do with his bare hands.”
With a meaningful look at Betty’s locks, The Gnome asked, “Or you could do with your tresses?”
“I’m not that strong with it.” Betty said, suddenly unsure of where the conversation was going.
“Hmm…” mused The Gnome. “Interesting, because Virginia can form her ‘goo’ into a giant ax blade that can do this.” He flourished the palmtop with the picture on it. “She was a bit upset after our adventure, but The Gnome imagines he would wet his pants if she were ever driven to the edge—say by bullying. There might be many unfortunate haircuts going around—above the scalp or below the neck.”
Finally getting at what he was trying to say, Betty recoiled from him. Her hair flushed an odd ashy gray in response to her discomfort. “Y-you don’t scare me, Gnome.”
The Gnome shrugged amiably. “The Gnome wasn’t trying to scare you. And The Gnome isn’t speaking for Virginia, by the way. All The Gnome know is that Virginia’s way braver and better than anyone who deserves to be called ‘Goo’. Also, way more powerful. So The Gnome will make you a deal: he will never speak to you again if you promise not to make fun of her.”
Betty’s hair slipped back toward black as she slipped back into her element. “Sounds like someone has a crush.”
A nasty little smile, suitable for a Brother’s Grim story appeared on The Gnome’s lips. “Not at the moment, but if you don’t back off from Virginia, The Gnome might develop a crush on you. Many is the number of gnomey love songs The Gnome would sing for you day and night.”
It took weeks for Virginia to wonder why Betty and her friends had stopped making fun of her.
In a small apartment not far from City Central, a few hours after classes had ended at the Institute, an online chat protocol had just been initiated.
“We received your package.” said the voice on the other line, “We’re happy to find you finally making progress obtaining samples.”
The man in the apartment scowled. “I’m not well placed to get samples. I deliver what I can get. Besides, my understanding was that my primary objective is monitoring the SD-108 candidates for possible tell-tale manifestations.”
“The Project is branching out.” said the voice, “And you aren’t the only person in place at the Institute. We’re still interested in SD-108, but reports on some of the other powers present at the school and this bumper crop of first year students represent an opportunity we can’t pass up.”
“And what does that mean for me?”
There was a slight pause and a new, female voice took over. “More observation of a larger pool of targets. And if closer observation still.”
“Closer.” he said skeptically.
“This is the largest grouping of descendants on Earth. There is sociological value to be had learning how their powers affect their personal lives. We recommend you find ways to speak and interact more—mentor some students, volunteer as chaperone for field trips.”
The man made a face. “Must I?”
“If you wish to continue on our payroll. More samples, more results. Especially our Steampunk and the girl, Maya Blumberg. SD-108 remains the priority obviously.”
End Liedecker Institute Annual #4