By Ell Leigh Clarke & Michael Anderle
Arlene Bailey’s Laboratory, Skóli Uppstigs Academy, Spire, Estaria
Anne padded down the corridor of the main campus building, following the faux tweed almost of Professor Giles Kurns. She’d known from the moment she laid eyes on him that he’d be trustworthy. She just needed to make sure he was truly willing to listen and work with her.
Not that she had trust issues, she mused.
And he was certainly knowledgeable. In fact, after hearing his telling of his latest adventure, she was sure that he’d be able to help her with her predicament. A predicament that’d been weighing on her young shoulders for a good portion of her life.
Now she followed him to meet the one he reports to. That, she ascertained from the way he talked about her. She certainly wore the trousers . . . even if Giles didn’t realize it.
In fact, having seen them together on their return to Gaitune several months ago, she could’ve sworn they were married. Or something.
But apparently not, according to Paige.
Her belly swilled with ice cream as she jogged a few strides to keep up with Giles’s long gate. He’d taken her to the parlor just ahead of this meeting . . . no doubt to sweeten her up a bit. And maybe to give himself a sugar lift. For some reason he seemed . . . nervous?
Their footsteps, out of sync, reverberated through the vacant corridors. The sound reminded her of her first boarding school when she was younger. The one where her parents had first sent her away. They hadn’t coped well with her floating baby toys or kitchen utensils, and when one of her tantrums finally set fire to the drapes, that was the last straw.
Her mother had insisted. Her father didn’t argue. Instead, he put in the call to his friend, the doctor, and within a week, she was being delivered to an institution that specialized in her ‘gift’.
At least, that was what they’d called it to begin with.
“Come alone now, Anne, dear,” Giles called behind him, as he swept through the hallway and through another door. “We can’t keep her waiting.” He paused, holding the door for her, then pointed her up a stone staircase. “Up you go. Second floor.”
Anne noticed his face was tight and jaw set with tension as she hurried her little legs past him and began climbing the staircase.
Giles followed behind her at first, then taking two at a time, bounded up as if he wanted to race her. Catching on, she hurried herself, her old shoes tap-tap-tapping on the stone, pushing her up and then up again through several flights.
They arrived at the second floor, and in a swirl of activity, he hurried her along the next corridor, stopping abruptly outside a slightly ajar door.
Anne caught up again, breathing more heavily than she would normally.
There wasn’t much to do around the base at Gaitune . . . apart from the fact that most places were off-limits to her under Joel’s strict rules. She knew he just wanted to keep her safe, but as a pseudo parent he was a little overprotective at times. He wouldn’t even let her use the gym unless someone else was with her.
She’d argued that if she had a holo, then Oz could monitor her. He and Molly had also made the decision that until they knew more about her past and who was after her, they didn’t want a device flagging to anyone where she was.
Apparently, the system’s AI wasn’t up to safeguarding her with some kind of firewall.
She stopped by the door, waiting for instructions.
“Are you going to stand out there all day?” a female voice called from inside the room.
Giles nodded to her and pushed the door open, signaling for her to head inside.
Anne stepped forward slightly apprehensively. She’d heard so much about this woman. About how advanced she was in what her parents would’ve called, the Dark Estarian Arts. Molly had talked about her as if she were some kind of strict but caring aunt. Paige seemed to worship her . . . from a safe distance. Giles had told her about the fireballs and how she’d used a barrier spell to save them both from guards when they were out tomb raiding.
Anne wasn’t sure what to make of it all.
Gingerly, she stepped into the room, feeling the warm air of the lab touch her skin. Her senses were alert. On edge. Not quite knowing what to expect from this long-awaited meeting.
Giles followed her in. “Arlene? Where are you?”
“Right here!” Arlene appeared at the prep room door holding a rack of test tubes. She wandered casually over to the side bench where she had an apparatus set up and placed the rack down before wiping her hands on her lab coat.
Anne smiled a half smile. “Greetings,” she said, bowing her head politely. She wanted to hide behind Giles but resisted the urge.
Arlene might scare everyone else, but she wasn’t going to scare her. Anne had been pulling fireballs from the air since she was seven. Arlene was going to have to do more than that to impress her.
“Ahhh, so you must be Anne,” Arlene said, stepping forward and holding her hand out. “Giles has told me all about you!”
Not that scary for a fireball-touting ascension coach, Anne thought to herself.
She took Arlene’s hand and shook it politely. “Nice to meet you,” Anne replied as confidently as she could.
Arlene smiled at her. “I hear that you’ve been staying up on Gaitune for a while?”
“How do you find it there?”
“It’s ok,” she replied flatly, waiting for the real conversation to begin.
Arlene exhaled in a kind of humorless laugh and sat down on a nearby stool. She offered another for Anne to sit on. “That good, eh? I expect there isn’t much for someone who isn’t working as part of the team to do up there. No trees or sand or soil . . .” She paused. “What do you do most of your day?”
Anne had caught her breath. She wasn’t going to tell her that she spent most of her time scheming how to access some of the consoles on the ships. But she could tell her some of the other things. “I play video games with Brock. And sometimes he lets me help fix things with him.”
Arlene’s eyes brightened. “Really?” She glanced at Giles. “And what else?”
“I hang with Paige and Maya sometimes. They like to braid my hair and talk about boys and things. Paige lets me test all her new products, too.”
Arlene actually looked like she was listening.
“And then Giles comes to visit sometimes,” Anne said, relaxing a little and smiling back at Giles, who’d perched himself against another bench in the room.
“I see,” Arlene said, still paying close attention.
Anne felt like Arlene was connecting with her. It was a strange feeling . . . like she was really listening to her. And then it occurred to her that she might be doing her tuning in shit—like Molly had described to her.
Anne’s barriers went up. She clenched her teeth and felt her chest tighten.
“What’s wrong?” Arlene asked, suddenly concerned.
“You’re . . . scanning me,” Anne said, uncertain. “You’re inside my field and my body, and your—”
Arlene held her hands up, and the warmth of energy withdrew. “It’s ok. I’m not doing anything. We’re just talking. It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. Look,” she said, standing up and taking a step back, “that’s all you now. I’m out of your field.”
Anne felt her chest relax. She couldn’t tell if the anxiety was because she’d made herself tense, or if it was Arlene’s doing. Either way, she didn’t like it.
Arlene sat down on the stool again. “It’s all ok . . .” she reiterated. “Giles told you that I can help you? With your powers?”
Anne nodded, still unnerved by what she didn’t understand.
Arlene bobbed her head. “Ok. Well, I’m going to show you how you can use them and how to control them. And you’ll see that sometimes it’s going to be easier for you to learn how this works by tuning into my energy, just like I did with you then.”
Anne didn’t respond. She felt Giles shuffling just outside her field of view.
Arlene continued pushing her dark hair back away from her effervescent blue skin. “It’s just like listening closely when someone’s talking with you. That’s all. But instead of using your ears, you’re using all your senses, and you tune in like a radio dial.”
Anne frowned. “What’s a radio?” she asked.
Arlene smiled the smile of someone who was becoming aware of her age. “Ok, I’ll show you that some time. Let’s not worry about it for now. The point is, you’re a very talented young lady, and very soon you’re going to be able to do some very helpful things . . . which’ll also mean you won’t be quite so bored while everyone else is busy.”
Anne narrowed one eye, searching for the proposition that Arlene was making. “You mean, you’re going to train me to be part of the team?”
Arlene pressed her lips together. “Well, I can’t promise that. Especially not until Molly knows that no one’s coming after you and we know you’re safe . . . but at least if we all knew you could control your powers, the team around you would be safe and we could start teaching you other, more advanced things that could be useful.”
Anne dropped her gaze to the floor. She didn’t feel like she had a choice in all this. And what’s more, Arlene was making her feel like all those nuns and doctors and therapists through the years who’d tried to tame her wild talents. Yet there was something she trusted.
Arlene’s face morphed from friendly to stern. “Tell me, Anne, have you had any . . . episodes . . . since you’ve been on Gaitune?”
Anne’s mind flicked through the myriad of things that happened on a semi-regular basis.
Helping Paige baking she accidentally exploded the sponge cake when she tried to help it cook.
That was messy.
Then helping Brock repaint, but then when he made her laugh too hard, she accidentally exploded a can of paint all over the hangar deck and the nose of the Scamp Princess. And Brock.
That was also messy, and there are still patches of green paint on the yellow hangar deck floor. And the underside of the nose of the Scamp Princess.
Then there was the time in the gym when Sean had told her to move out of the way, and she got so mad that she made him slip while he was holding some heavy weights.
She never admitted it was her though. To this day, he thinks he was clumsy and never even told anyone about it.
Anne gazed at Arlene, then shook her head. “No, not that I can think of,” she said, pretending to think hard.
Arlene had a flash of humor in the outer corner of one eye, which evaporated before Anne could really register it.
“Good,” Arlene said. “That means your powers aren’t as strong as we were hoping. Your training should be pretty straightforward then.”
Anne suspected Arlene was onto her. And now this had just become a game. A game of let’s pretend.
Anne felt the anxiety swill in her chest, and it was too late to come clean.
The conversation went on for a little while longer, and it was, in a roundabout way, agreed that Anne would permit Arlene to show her some exercises so she could work on controlling her powers.
Lessons would begin in a few days when Giles and Arlene could sync their busy schedules.
Meanwhile, Anne would hang tight on Gaitune.
“Ok,” Arlene said eventually, “do you want to have a look at some microscope slides while I talk with the G-man?”
Anne nodded. Arlene led her over to the microscope she’d set up on a bench away from all her important samples. She brought some non-essential slides over for her and showed her quickly how to work the magnification.
Then she padded quietly past Giles, beckoning him with the twitch of her finger to follow her into the prep room. The pair stood in the doorway, keeping an eye on Anne and talking in low voices.
“It seems Oz has had a breakthrough in the talisman DNA data . . .” Arlene began, changing the subject entirely.
“Finally,” she added, shaking her head with a touch of impatience. “It looks like at least some of these fragments are coordinates. Sets of three intersecting vectors referenced against a background of stars, it looks like.
“Ahhhh,” Giles breathed, “coordinates that’re independent of man-made quadrants!”
Giles’s eyes looked distance for a moment. “That’s seriously old school . . . and very clever.”
Arlene pulled her lips down at the corners. “Yes, and only necessary if you think the folks interpreting your coordinates won’t have your set of maps and reference points.”
Giles shoved one hand in his pocket. “Like someone very far in the future, when socio-political landscapes are different and star regression can be extrapolated.” He bobbed his head, thinking out loud. “How many of these references are there?”
Arlene shrugged. “About seven or eight . . . there about.”
“Hmm. Seven or eight different coordinates . . .” he mused. “I don’t suppose we know where any of these might be referring to yet?”
Arlene shook her head.
“How long do you think it’ll take to decipher them?”
Arlene flapped her arms silently but dramatically. “Not a clue,” she told him, lowering her voice again, trying not to draw Anne’s attention.
“Now that we know what we’re looking at, we can start referencing the points that we’ve interpreted . . . but it’s down to how fast Oz can work now.”
Giles ran a long finger over his chin, then tapped his lips. “Great. Well, this certainly is good news.” He leaned against the door frame, watching Anne struggling to get a slide into the microscope holder.
“Well, even if we had a location, there’s nothing we can do until Sean gets back with the Scamp Princess. No way Molly will let us take The Empress.” His expression was almost forlorn, like this wasn’t just a transportation issue.
Arlene frowned. “What about the Little Empress?”
“Doesn’t have gate capabilities,” he said flatly. “We’d be dead in the water without that.”
“Grr,” she growled quietly, clearly agitated at being cooped up in the lab all this time. Or at being so close to a breakthrough yet so far from it.
Anne dropped something, pulling Arlene’s attention and an annoyed glance.
“Sorry,” she called, fiddling with the knob, desperately trying to screw it back on.
Arlene returned her attention to Giles. “Well, I guess we just need to wait. In the meantime, I’ll see what else we can figure out from this code.”
She started flicking through holoscreens on her wrist holo, checking that she didn’t have anything else to run by Giles while he was here. “Oh, one more thing,” she realized, her eye catching on some notes. “I ran a mass spectrometry analysis of the outer material of the talisman and then got Oz to model what the composition might look like.”
“Yeah?” Giles said, pulling his glasses from his face and cleaning them as if he were now bored. “I’ve done that before. Turned up nothing in the known database.”
Arlene clicked her fingers at him and pointed. “That’s what I got. Though,” she pulled up a different holoscreen to show him, “this is what the molecular structure looks like.”
Anne had wandered over and looked over Giles’s arm to see the screen, idly curious. Giles waved his finger in it and tilted the floating hologram down for her to see.
Arlene got distracted by another note that’d caught her eye and was already on to working on the next thing. Giles handed her the holoscreen back, and she left it projecting onto the bench next to her.
“Well, I guess we’ll head off then,” he called over to her, signaling for Anne to grab her jacket.
“Yeah. Ok.” Arlene replied, absently. “Lemme know about training,” she added, not even looking up.
Giles guided Anne out of the lab. “Will do,” he responded, hoping they’d have something to get Arlene out of crazy scientist mode soon. Otherwise, he’d have to resort to drastic measures. Like taking her out or something.
He shuddered. Socializing wasn’t his strong suit. He’d much rather hang with her on an adventure where they had a shared goal. And bullets flying at them.
Far more . . . intimate.
He smiled to himself as he pulled the door closed behind them, catching a glimpse of her hunched over her holo talking to herself.