1. The Assembly I've been in assemblies before. Shouting. Chanting. Saluting. Freedom! Chin! Liberty! Chin! Victory! Chin! Yes, that's an assembly. This? This is a mob kettled into an auditorium, tightly monitored but resisting any such attempts to keep them under any more than the most gross control. Though the rebellion and resistance is largely innocuous: unsanctioned chatter, unsanctioned use of mobiles, and public displays of affection as likely to be restrained by peers as by the faculty. I've infiltrated crowds before, but there is an odd difference here. My instincts are to move unseen, observing but unobserved, part of the backdrop. But I also feel an odd freedom. I don't need to be the unseen eyes and ears. There are no mission parameters, no goals (immediate ones, at least) that require any given behavior. I'm surrounded by people, and I suddenly realize I'm not sure what to do about it. Abruptly, surrounded by hundreds of other teens in this auditorium, I get a dizzying sense of agoraphobia. "Hey." I twitch in a nearly-unfortunate reflex response as a voice chirps in my right ear. "Whoa!" The girl next to me (blonde-white-strongjaw-greeneyes-heftmusclesheight) takes a half-step back, arms rising as if to ward off the blow (that, to be fair, I'm having to abort before it becomes too obvious). "What's up, Tex?" "Sorry," I say, with sincerity. "You startled me." "Hey, got it -- no tapping you on the shoulder in a dark alley. No worries." I'm trying to decide if she's mocking me when she gives me a toothy smile. "Daphne Palin. Daph. You're new. One of the Southies?" She lowers herself into the auditorum seat next to me. Gray camo pants. White tee with a big blue butterfly. "You know everyone here that well?" She snorts. "I'm a busy-body. Plus I did a student body survey last semester -- for Applied Theology, fun project -- so I actually met almost every single kid attending Gardner. So anyone else is a newcomer." An interesting source of intel, then, worth cultivating. "Alice," I say. "Alice Chan. I'm actually new in town, just enrolled here." "Oh, hey. Well, things are a little crowded, sorry. I mean, yeah, glad we can bring in some of the Southies after all that Christmas Crazy, they've got needs, right? But it's going to be a crazy semester." And an interesting bit of tribalism. "So outsiders are welcome, but not all that welcome?" She laughs. "You're talking to a sosh major, early decision, Princeton. Not quite Othering, but whiffs of it. But where's going to be different? I think by the end of the semester, we'll all blend together. Gardner's got a rep as elitist, but it's got a weird mix already, right? The Richies, the Metas, the Brains. And there's a lot of overlap in those categories, too. So adding in the Southies I think will work okay. Except all the doubles on lockers." "Oh." I hadn't considered that someone might be sharing the locker that piece of paper in my satchel said was "mine." Not that I'd assume anything like that would be secure, especially with American views on student privacy, but even so -- "So, gotta ask," Daph says, "Which are you?" I cock my head. "Brain, I guess. I'm on a free ride through the government." "Sweet," Daph says. "I'm Meta, but some scholarships. You --" I hold up a hand. "Hang on." A new cast member has come onstage. Well, not onstage, but into the audience. Jason Quill is going down one aisle, looking for someone to sit with and -- yes, he's spotted someone, but he's hesitating -- Jason is an enigma. I've seen him dive into a crocodile-infested river, return fire at attacking adults, leap over chasms -- all those bold, heroic, man-of-action sorts of things that should only exist in cartoons or major Hollywood summer action-adventures. His actions in the so-called "Sepiaverse" were similarly decisive and bold. But remove the physical danger, the life-or-death need to act, to protect others, and present him with a social situation, especially related to girls, and he goes all screwball teen comedy instead. It would be pathetic, if it weren't (as one of the girls in question) so irritating, if it weren't (ditto, and for some reason I can't quite figure out) so charming. I crane my neck a bit to see who he was sitting next to, but he's down quite a number of rows, and clearly didn't see me (since I'd been watching for him) along the way. Daph is living up to her busy-bodiness. "Someone you know, or -- oh, him ." She makes a noise. "Yeah, he's one of the more famous kids here -- maybe the most. And everyone says he's actually a nice guy, and, to be honest, half my scholarship money is coming out of his pockets -- but dude misses class almost half the time, and doesn't really hang with much of anyone. I ever did get him into my survey." "And he's an intersection of your three groups: Richies, Metas, and Brains." "True. I know a few girls who thought that made him a rich target, but, nah, nothing. He doesn't ever seem to catch a clue. Preoccupied with big deals and big adventures, maybe." "Perhaps he's gay." "Well, not if you follow the tabloids, y'know, but that's a sensitive topic here. Lot of Gardner is publicity-averse, for a variety of reasons, though a few people are th opposite. Anyway, the hero rags all have him either this tragic figure, orphaned and alone, waiting for just the right girl to come along and sweep him off his feet --" I snort. An intriguing thought, that. "-- Or they say his heart is lost to that gal who keeps making all the threats against him." I not only do not read the tabloids, the "hero rags," the celebrity gossip magazines that create distractions from the truly important news and issues of the world, but I've made a concerted effort to avoid such brain rot. I suddenly realize that perhaps that was a tactical error -- if what they say is important, not because of its truth, but because it is read by the masses -- I cut myself short. "Masses" is the sort of word that Father would use. That was half his problem. Daph has been talking on. "Wait, what was that?" I ask. "Oh, supposedly that crazy daughter of Doctor Chin was out for blood against him, but there's always these lurid stories about how they're really this tragic couple split by their fathers, all 'two households, both alike in dignity,' y'know?" "No. Do tell." "Really? So supposedly there was this adventure in the Antarctic and they hooked up when --" "What?!" She looks at me. "I thought everyone had heard about this, but --" This horrifying, fascinating, yet still horrifying rendition is interrupted by the Principal stepping onto the stage and behind the podium, and beginning a very long, very tedious speech, repeating material that was in the papers I was already given, repeating items that everyone clearly already knows (though, frankly, some of them I make a mental note to research, because I, at least, have been spared American education during my life, and so am not up on "EOCs" or "Testing Ring Cycles" (non-Wagnerian), or "ECATS" (except for one very unsuccessful attempt by me to build pets for myself). As the speaking goes on and on, I slip my mobile out of my pants pocket. Use of such devices on school grounds, except under limited circumstances, is firmly disallowed, I have read in several places, and the Principal has already mentioned it at least twice.. It brings me a certain measure of joy to exercise some of the techniques I was taught to use in far more secure and heavily guarded circumstances to tap out a message to Jason: Hello hero The phone, like the clothes on my back, are through the good graces of AEGIS; I am told the number will be assigned to me, long-term, which for the moment is fine, as I would prefer Jason knew it. From my vantage further back in the auditorium, I can see his head lower, then pop back up, swivel to the sides looking for the source. Just as quickly, he goes still. I don't get a message back. He's a very law-abiding individual. I wonder if I will have an effect on that. At length, the speech rambles toward an end, with some inspiring words about final semesters, chapters closing, new chapters beginning, the need to continue to seek, to strive, and not to yield to senioritis. The crowd is restless, though nobody particularly wants to go to class. A text finally comes back: Hey I quickly tap back: Sssshhh no texting during the assembly There is no applause at the Principal's final words -- neither the polite palm-tapping acknowledgement of the École Saint-Michel, or the boot-stomping gutteral chants of the Военная академия Жукова. Just a surge of students rising from their seats, some slowly, some quickly. "Hey, let me see your schedule," Daph says, as we get to our feet. I hand the piece of paper to her. "Cool, we've got APUSH and Calc together. Hogarth is great. I'll see you later, then." "Yes -- later. Thanks." "Don't mention it. Oh, hey! Chrissy!" Daph is tall and muscular -- I wonder briefly what sports she participates in -- and she forges her way through the crowd to some other social contact, leaving me to deduce the direction to Room WB1312 for "Consumer and Domestic Science". Fortunately, I'm not the only newcomer to the campus, and Seniors in colorful t-shirts have been stationed in the halls to cheerfully answer such questions. I consider Daphne Palin as I walk. In normal circumstances -- normal for my life to date -- her open approach to me, insinuation into my business, forcing of social connection -- would be highly suspicious, a sign of a plant, a threat, or an operator working to investigate me, counter-intelligence, potential assassin, etc. In these "normal" circumstances, I wonder if I've met my first friend here. As I step into the classroom, I'm not sure which is the more worrisome possibility.
2. Home Ec Even with needing to orient to the odd room numbering system, I'm still one of the first to arrive in class. It's a largish room, with desks for about 25 set up on the far end, and a set of cooktops and other kitchen paraphernalia set up on the other. One such range has a large monitor over it, presumably for demonstrations by the teacher (or, possibly, public humiliation of the students). Exhaust hoods are in place to deal with the combination of "beginners" and "cooking" that will inevitably lead to "smoke" (if not "fire"). Inspirational posters (once again) festoon the walls -- "Try Something New!" "Raiders of the Food Pyramid!" "Unprocessed Foods Rock!" "Healthy Food Means a Healthy Body!" The equipment looks to be in good shape. Gardner Academy does, as Daph noted, have something of an elitist aspect to it; it's funded through tuition, not through taxation, with all the shenanigans that either arrangement allows for in a plutocracy. I set myself up toward the back, almost out of instinct -- back against the wall, view of the door, positioned to observe rather than participate. Probably just as well, since I wasn't all that far off in talking about burning ramen. But that's not the reason I jumped on this class. Students continue to trail in. A few I recognize from my past research on Halcyon metas -- Kid Kelvin of the JHHL slouches in a chair, radiating disdain for anything that is about to happen so palpable, he might as well be wearing a sign. A few more kids -- and -- The robot. Robots. Plural. Which suddenly makes things much clearer, and time slows waaaaay down as I evaluate the threat. When I'd first encountered her in Federal City, she'd clearly been Jason's creature. He'd even used one of Father's old assassin droid housings for her, with some hard light projectors to create the appropriate eye candy. (My eye notes the flicker is gone around the right shoulder, and I can't hear the whine the antigravs on those droids always made. A new body, then. Jason was busy this weekend.) I'd been confused, though, when watching that insane "Ask Me Anything" event when the bot had instead associated with another boy on the team, the armored figure Link, who had unmasked for the occasion. And now twin robots, which either meant Jason or Link were indulging in that particularly predictable male fantasy, or -- Ah. Link does all the anime / robot gimmickry as his contribution to the team, including the eponymous linking up with -- right, Link's armored sparring partner against the Dread Queen during that particular operations. So one for each of them. How fun. I wonder if new members get one, too. Maybe I'll ask. So is Jason or Link the lead toy maker? Perhaps they collaborate -- but how closely? That would give a whole new meaning to the term "double-dating". Jason, you scamp. Time stretches back to normal. They're not here for me. Instead, they're apparently enrolled in class, which makes them pretty sophisticated AI to go with their near-human appearance. Father disdained such things, preferring, as always, obedience to verisimilitude. I wonder what their purpose in this play is, and who the director is. The two are thick as thieves as they sit toward the front of the class, talking and giggling like the proverbial schoolgirls. I believe I know which is the one I pulled guns on (and who demonstrated a remarkable level of suggestive snark for a machine), and that's confirmed when she spots me, gives a friendly wave and a smile, then whispers something to her twin, who favors me with a much less pleasant look. (Bear in mind that I have other feelings -- many other feelings -- on this matter. Which feelings I very carefully bundle up and put deeply aside for later consideration. Now is not the time, unless I want bloody mayhem to ensue -- and it's far too soon to resort to that.) A few more kids, then the man of the hour, and the whole reason I took this particular course: Jason Quill. He walks into the room three steps. His eyes pan across to find a seat -- spot the robots, widen slightly, catch me, catch my smile -- and he pivots on his heels and walks back out. The robots giggle some more, and another girl frowns mightily. Yet another Jason fan, poor thing. Link pokes his head in. Even better. I give him a finger wave, and he pulls back, before scurrying in and parking himself near, but not between, the two robots. A bell rings, and the teacher -- a Mr. Piras, a fussy-looking little man wearing a yellow plaid shirt and beige slacks -- gets up from his desk and clears his throat. "Ahem. Mr. Quill," he calls out toward the hallway, "are we keeping you from something?" The other kids titter. I smile. Jason walks in, only marginally less flustered than someone headed to a firing squad. To which end, I shoot him with a finger gun. He finds a seat off to the front corner of the room. "Thank you," Piras says, getting out a three-ring binder and opening it up. "This class covers a wide array of course material, but I find it useful to get the one that causes you kids the most squealing and embarrassment out of the way up front. So we'll be kicking the semester off this week by tackling our Family Health and Sexual Education unit." Kid Kelvin -- I'm sure he has a name, but why bother -- makes a "woop-woop" sound and leers at the girls around him. There's the expected few embarrassed chuckles and ribald noises from the class in general, and a few more giggles from the robot twins. I merely satisfy myself with a smile as Jason sinks down lower in his seat. Oh, Jason. What am I going to do with you?
3. Study Hall Final period. Heck of a day. Let's save the nostalgic review of my new alma mater until tonight. Living in a plain white cell does not provide much for evening's entertainment, so it's good to hold onto topics for further examination. Of course, I have some homework assignments. Mostly a matter of how fast I can flip the pages of the books, and write the answers on paper. Will I be given access to paper and pencil in durance vile. I might build some infernal machine with such materials. Can't take the risk! We'll send a note to your teacher. Sorry about the assignment, Mr. Smith, the AEGIS ate it. Final period across the school is Study Hall, with defined teams of students supposedly computer-sorted for class synergies and other compatibility factors, each assigned to one of the classrooms around the building, where they can work on homework, or provide peer scholarly assistance to others on their team, or do other fine socio-academic things. I suspect this is a plan that read much better in proposal than has turned out in reality, but nobody has tasked me to reform a private educational institution for the rich, (literally) powerful, or charity case children of the noble citizens of Halcyon City. After this day, given such a task, I would recommend equal portions of Petrol and Benzodiazepine. (I exaggerate for effect. I have actually met some people who appear to be pleasant, intelligent, and emotionally balanced. Most of the student body seems to hit one or two out of three, at best. I find myself hesitating to engage beyond meaningless social niceties with those key individuals; I realize that this is because I either do not trust them, or have the fear I will be swept away from all of this. It's unclear to me if these apprehensions are at all rational, or if that should make a difference in my having them.) (And, to be fair, nobody has called me pauper trash, nobody has infected me with a vicious tropical disease, and nobody has tried to stick a shiv in either my back or my front, so perhaps I should count my blessings.) As a member of Group "M-for-Mary" (selected, not by computer, but by the seemingly-but-doubtlessly-not-a-whim of Agent Park), I approach the door to room WN4013 with a bit of apprehension, and open the door. "Come in, Alycia." Agent Parker, with Agent Waters beside her, is off to one side, surprising me not at all. The room is raked in steps around a podium and large whiteboard to the right of the door. "How was your day?" "I can feel myself shedding IQ at an alarming rate," I say. "I've been invited to try out as cheerleader." "Good Lord," Parker says, dust sifting from her tone. "Go, school warriors!" I chant, slightly raising my voice, keeping the affect flat, "Physically disable your counterparts and run up the ball game score to increase our tribal pride and thus bring shame upon the families of the other educational institutions with which we vie, so as to distract from the few substantive triumphs and many failures of our own educational institution." I hop upward a few inches, and hold up my right fist. "Yay, team." Waters makes a noise of some sort. Parker gestures to the side. "Have a seat, Miss Chin." I choose a desk on the far audience left, a maximum distance away from the door. I turn the desk slightly, to be able to watch the room. A minute later, Link enters. (I call up the image of the enrollment in the Home Ec class. Leonard Snow .) He looks over the room, nodding to the AEGIS agents, not nodding to me, then sitting in the center of the arc, halfway up. He pulls out a "Western Civ" book, and starts to read. One of the robots is next. That entrance actually gets a smile from Link/Leonard, which is returned, so it's probably that robot. The one that protects Leo. Versus the one that protects and flirts with you-know-who. The door opens again. A little kid wanders in. Okay, maybe a freshman. Or maybe not. He stops at the door, with a confused / aghast / apprehensive / gobsmacked expression like he just walked in on his parents having sex and about to be killed by an axe murderer wearing a Darth Vader mask. "Am I am -- the wrong place?" "Hey!" Leonard says. "Adam." He gestures to a desk next to him with a grin. The kid -- Adam -- smiles wanly. "Hey." He smiles a bit more broadly at the robot. "Hey." He looks over at me. "Hey," I say, shooting him with a finger-gun. His returning smile is uncertain, but he slips off his backpack, and plops down at a desk next to Leonard. Whomever he is, he belo-- A piece falls into place. Of course. The Team. Which makes him the Cosmic Kid, or whatever his code name is. Concord . Okay, that's even more interesting and terrifying than I'd thought. The door slams open, and Mercury -- or Harry Gale, in civvies -- zips in. "Sorry I'm -- hey, Leo, Adam, Arrrrraaaaaah!" He spots me, take a double-step back, "Je--" His gaze flips over to the agents. "--eeepers, it's Alycia fuh-reaking Chin." Leonard -- Leo -- looks up. "Yeah. We know." "Miss Chin is under AEGIS supervision, and has given her parole," Agent Parker chimes in with her cute little English accent. "I am but a poor penitent," I say, "a contrite sinner seeking a new leaf to turn over. I'm also unarmed, and under threat of dire punishment if I even look sideways at anyone." "Yyeah," Gale says. "Um, whatever." "If you would take a seat, Mr. Gale, all will be revealed shortly," Agent Parker says. Quite the sense of drama, our Agent Parker. The door opens once more. "Oh!" The other robot. The Jason one. She takes in the agents, gives me a wave and a wink, then sits down next to her twin. The stage is set. The lights are dimming. The forces of history grind forward another tick, as, with massive inevitability, the door opens once more, to reveal Jason Quill. * * * I'm pleasantly surprised to see him not pivot about and flee, or perhaps run to the corner and gibber, or hurl himself through the window and fall screaming to his death (miraculously, as this is a ground-floor room). (I need to speak some time of Jason Quill. But not yet.) Regardless, he misses only a beat -- and, to be fair, it's a more controlled reaction than, say, Gale, or Adam. Bravo, Jason . He looks around the room, deliberately. A nod, half-smile to Adam. An awkward wave, a larger smile, to his robot. A nod to Leonard/Leo's robot. A long look between him and Leo. All right, there's an interesting dynamic. Not double-dating then. Possibilities spin through my mind. His eyes turn to me. His blue eyes -- damnation, you idiot, stop that. His face is neutral, impassive, as he sees me here. Or is there the slightest of smiles --? Focus. Breathe. He turns to the AEGIS agents. "I guess this is a different sort of study hall." Parker looks at Waters, who gives a tug to his coat lapels. "Yeah. Go ahead and take a seat, Mr. Quill." Jason slides into a desk, not so far from his robot -- Summer is her designation, I finally recall. And there we are. The Menagerie. With AEGIS dressing. And me. In that moment, that realization, I feel -- apprehension. All right, to be more accurate, it's fear. I've had a plan around all of this, in broad strokes but decently define. I've had to (and been able to) adapt it, shift it, accept compromises and uncertainties and flukes. But I realize now there are too many variables, too many random vectors of force to plot accurately. This is a moment . From here I can see my destiny veering off in different directions, most of them ending (and many of them starting out) unpleasantly. I'm not in control here. Dammit. I don't even have the illusion of control. That's been the pattern of my life, but for the briefest of moments, leading here, I've been free , launched in a direction of my own choosing despite the obstacles in my way. But this is a decision point. What happens next is of the utmost importance. And I can't control it and I don't know what to do to influence it and suddenly I'm terrified. * * * Waters steps casually, almost unintentionally in manner, away from Parker, and to the focal point of the room. "Thanks, all. This is your actual Study Hall group, but for today we've got something a bit less academic. We wanted to get you folks together to let you know what's in the works." There's a subtle shift in the others. They walked in separately, bouncing off the circumstances in their own way, uncertain, scattered, individuals. But Waters words trigger something. Their attention focuses. The uncertainty in their posture, their gestures, their faces, fades. Yes. There's that something there. This is a team. Not something I've seen often, but it's unmistakable. I feel even more the outsider in the room. Waters continues in his tired, gravelly voice. "Miss Chin here --" He waves a hand toward me, unnecessarily -- they all know where, and who, I am, but their gazes still shift over, eyes like spotlights on me. "-- she's here under the watch of AEGIS. Special Agent Parker is her handler. MIss Chin has surrendered herself to the agency, and we've reached certain agreements with her as to providing information on her father's activities, and helping those involved to be brought to justice." I smile, automatically. When the spotlight turns to you, you can either dodge it, writhe under its heat, or acknowledge it. In this circumstance, only the latter is possible. I see nods from a few -- Jason, gratifyingly, along with his "Summer" bot, of course. Neutral stares from the rest. "We're working on some other agreements," Waters goes on, pulling back their attention. "Miss Chin has shown an interest in -- turning over a new leaf, as she said. The Menagerie happens to be an organization with peers in her age range with whom she has some previous, ah, interaction." Well, that's stating it a bit strongly. Though -- I suppose I did fight alongside them against the Vyortovians. That should count for something, yes? "To that end, our intent is to have her be a member of that team, and so we thought it would be best to meet with you. Regardless, she will be attending Gardner as part of her probation." The eyes are back, judging, weighing, analyzing, peeling back the smile from my face to what lies below. You have no idea -- My stomach hurts, and I'm seized with a horrifying uncertainty. Father's eyes look down at me, evaluating my dubious worth, considering my manifest failings. Success in his eyes seems impossible. Failure carries with it consequences my gut rebels at facing. I keep up the smile -- the "Oh, sure, you hold my life in your hands, but it's not like that actually matters to me all that much" smile. I have no idea how successful I am, but it's all I can do. The Agent continues to drone on. "My understanding is that, at present, Leo is in charge of field operations, but we're officially presenting this to Mr Quill, since it's his name on the application form on file --" Jason looks a bit surprised by this, of course, and throws me a look. I raise an eyebrow. "-- and we can't engage in an agreement with Mr Snow in any case because he is also an AEGIS asset, administered by myself which would represent a conflict of interest." My eyes snap over to focus on Leo Snow. He's an "asset," too? That's ... interesting. Leo's eyes are locked on mine. Dark. Angry. "I'd like to talk to Miss Chin in private." "You can step over to the corner," Waters tells him. "Only if you'll shut off whatever listening devices you'd be using on us." "Perhaps," Parker speaks up, "Agent Waters and myself can have a brief chat with Mr Quill. That should keep us little pitchers occupied while you have your chat." Leo looks at Waters, then nods sharply to Parker. He gets up, and walks over to me, looms over my desk, and I wonder if he's going to grab my arm and drag me, but he merely gestures over to the corner of the room furthest from the others. I purse my lips, nod silently, get up, then walk in that direction. I pointedly turn my back to him, and the skin there crawls slightly. I've seen this man fight. We get to the corner, where an American flag in a heavy floor stand has been slid out of the way. I'm sure there's tremendous irony in my turning to stand with the US flag at my back, a metahuman threat to my face. I raise an eyebrow to him. He's handsome, I'll give you that. No clear ethnicity -- a nice melange of a number of physical traits and skin tone from a variety of locales about the globe. Father researched the desirability of mass breeding programs to eliminate racial distinctions (vs the gradual blending now which may take centuries in some parts of the world, assuming the world lasts that long). He eventually gave up the project as too resourceiintensive, but if the result had been something like this, I might have encouraged him. Aside from it being a horrible means to an end. "Do you know who I am?" he asks. His voice was a bit low-affect a few minutes ago. It had almost made him sound like a slacker, like he didn't care what was going on. That was a mistake in my evaluation -- an ironic one as well. It had actually been the voice of someone lying low, waiting and seeing, not showing the authority figures interest because that provides a chink through which one can be exploited. I've used that voice. The voice he is using now is anything but that. Intense, bubbling with anger, anxiety, determination. It's also an odd question. Do you know who I am? I keep my hands relaxed at my side. "You're a member of the Menagerie. You just came out to the public day before yesterday. You're the builder of those robots --" I nod my head toward the girls, the particular analysis of their origin having popped out of my mouth before I had truly realized it, but certain and accurate nonetheless. "-- with a knack for general mechanics. And -- I assume you have a background like mine because you have a handler." Whatever he hears, or doesn't hear, he doesn't immediately react, except to confirm the last point. "Waters is my Parker." I glance past him at the conversation going on quietly but intensely between Jason and Waters, as Parker watches the former, then the latter -- then, as if feeling my gaze, me, with the same laser intensity. "Yeah, I don't think it's quite the same, but close enough for government work." Leo leans in closer. I feel claustrophobic, trapped in this corner. I don't want to run, but I definitely want to pace, feel the room, balance the different variables being thrown into the equation. Instead, I force myself to calm, to smile in a passably non-aggressive fashion. "Things are going to be rough with you," he says. At first I think he's being sympathetic toward my plight -- then I wonder if he just means that my presence is going to be rough on the rest of the team. Dammit. This is not how this was supposed to go. My initial proposals to AEGIS had been much more straightforward, less complex, largely "Drop me off at the Quill Foundation, I'll find my way in, I can figure out what's going on with me and Jason, he can give me an invite to the team, and, yeah, I'll continue to feed you information and do the occasional --" That's not the deal as it's currently being cut, and it was foolish to think it ever would be. Still, the idea of my spending half my life at or dealing with this academic hothouse of teen angst is absurd. Actually scheduling this meeting here, in an uncontrolled environment, in a setting designed to maximize the stress of these others toward me or toward any change at all is either foolish or fiendish -- and Agent Parker is no fool, unfortunately. The only thing that would have been worse than this was for them to return to their little club house to find me, unannounced, sitting in an arm chair in the living room, reading a book and eating their leftover pizza. Though it would have been comedy gold. Leo's going on, and I realize my thinking is in overdrive again. This is the cusp of that make-or-break moment, and I'm having to deal with a stranger -- one on Jason's team, but with a clear, simmering animosity toward him, and thus, if only by extension, toward -- "I need access to your brain to help my friend restore his memories. I understand you have some problems in that category, too. If you go along with this, you have my support." Blink. "Wait, that's you?" Jason had broached this crazy scheme back in the Sepiaverse, and as thoroughly awful an idea as it sounded then, it was also better than the awful reality we were both suffering through. And having been forced into rapport through those damned nanobots (another resource no longer at my disposal), I had seen the gaping wounds in his memory -- and the hacks at my own, not as bad as his but maddening and terrifying enough. But Jason hadn't gone into the details, hadn't specified the "who" part. I had thought him the inventor of whatever device was in question. Putting myself in to the hands of this guy -- -- who clearly is very clever in creating and programming mental constructs -- -- and who Jason trusts -- Dammit. Why is Leo doing this? What's his angle? Retain Jason as an effective asset on the team? Put him in his debt? Arrange a convenient mistake that removes him from play (that tension between them is real, if unfocused), or that just perhaps manipulates the memory to his favor? But the body language is sincere. The voice is still that melange of anger and anxiety, but there's also a note of worry there. For his comrade. And all I have to do to get in nice with these people is play along? Should I be hard-to-get, or formally negotiate something with this guy, or -- "Well, yeah, sure," I hear myself saying. "I already told Jason yes." All right, mouth, I guess that's the decision you've made, nice to let us know before proceeding, but -- "Though -- this is just -- I don't have to know everything about him, do I? We get to keep our private parts private?" I smirk at the malapropism. "Take that however you like. I don't need to know about all of Jason's past happy-fun-times, right? And you certainly don't. You'll just be focusing on the damaged parts." We are our memories. Hacking away at them, like my father did with chemicals, like Jason's did with those nanobots (a fascinating alternate solution, but still slightly insane), is like having your body hacked at with a machete (and there are some images I don't need to remember right this moment). But I can't escape an existential shudder about the opposite problem: too sweeping of a repair job, too much shared, too much identity blurred between us. Jason certainly doesn't want that, or shouldn't. Indeed, I'm almost more concerned over what might bleed into his memory and gestalt than what might drift into my own. But -- "I'm just running the machine," Leo says. "I won't be privy to anything in either of your memories. The process will just focus on whatever the machine needs to patch the memories -- pull from you what Jason needs to fill in gaps his father --" Something twitches in his face, unconsciously, which makes me wonder what Byron Quill ever did to Leo. "-- made, and vice-versa for you. Your own brains make the adjustments to have it all seem like it makes sense. But that's all." He cocks his head, challenging, that anger-worry still present. He wants this. He's willing to compromise to let me in so that it can happen. "You good?" I nod, slowly. "Yeah. Soon as I can get out from underneath --" I gesture with my head toward the agents. "I assume you don't want AEGIS to know." "I think they already do. I don't care. Okay, I'm good with you." As simple as that? I doubt it, but any port in a storm. Leo turns and gives Jason a thumbs-up. Jason, who's apparently been paying much closer attention to the room than one might think, given he's been heads-down with two AEGIS agents, nods back, then holds up a hand to Waters and steps away from the pair. (The others? Harry's cracked open his books, but I keep catching an occasional flicker, almost invisible, as he throws lightnin glances at Jason's group, and at Leo and me. Adam is also heads-down in homework, throwing himself at it with an almost desperate air of shutting out the world.) (The robot girls aren't bothering with homework, but are openly watching the goings-on at the opposite corners of the room, with occasional soft, inaudible comments to one another. It's fascinating -- their glances aren't quite in sync, but there's some sort of detectable algorithm or pattern to them, though I can't quite pin it down without being able to focus more on it, and, to be honest, Leo Snow has had the lion's share of my concentration.) All eyes have shifted over to Jason, however, as he clears his throat. And it's odd, but I'm actually now seeing the Jason Quill I've come to expect, and respect (and et cetera), over the years -- more so, in some ways. I'm not sure what's rattled back together in his gearbox, but he actually seems to take over the room in a small way, just by his presence. "Hey, guys. I know I'm the one with the name at the top of the form and everything." He tosses a quick pained expression at the AEGIS agents, before turning back to the rest of us. "Paperwork sucks, but that's nothing new. But even if these guys --" He hefts a thumb at Parker and Waters. "-- expect me to make the decision, I can't. Or won't. The Menagerie is a team, which mean we all have a say in this. We need everyone's input. For what it's worth --" Now his eyes are focused on me. "-- my vote is yes. And, yeah, I know I'm not the most objective judge about Alycia Chin." He snorts, and that actually draws a chuckle from the others. "But that's how I feel about it. I want her on the team." Relief floods through me almost enough to make me tremble. On the one hand, of course that's what he'd say. He knows he needs me around for this memory patch thing, and I already knew he's still got (even without that accomplished) certain feelings for me -- And, of course, it's all a one-way, unreciprocated set of the feels, right, Alycia? Shut. Up. Later then. Later. But actually hearing him say the words in front of the others, in front of his little robot, when it would have been so easy for him to say no , or maybe , or recuse himself, or curl up in the corner, or, once again, just say no -- I will not show weakness. I will not -- I give him a small smile and, I hope, a politely thankful and gracious nod. Of all people, it's Parker who chimes in before I get to hear what the rest of them think (and would Jason actually let any of them blackball me, and, if he did, would they, and if they did, then what the hell happens to me next?). "This is still early days yet," she says, cutting off debate. She throws a glance over at Waters, who's frowning slightly. "We have support from AEGIS on this, notionally at least, and from the congressional oversight that needs to give their approval." I require congressional approval. That's both fascinating and disturbing. "The asset would be brought into your group anonymously, as she as been into this school -- her official name here is Alice Chan --" Harry mutters, "Jeez, who'd ever suspect that?" Parker says, with a raised eyebrow, "You'd be surprised, Mr Gale." As it's the name I'd worked under for six months actually at the Quill Foundation, I have to smile. Jason rolls his eyes but has the decency to look at least a slight bit embarrassed. "Regardless, we hope to have something concrete to offer and propose to you in a few short days. But as this was the start of term, we wanted her inserted into the local school as smoothly as possible, and then wanted to ease your minds that she hadn't escaped and was stalking you in your private lives." "So where does she live?" Adam asks into the ensuing silence. "Like, does she have an apartment, or --" "Government housing," I quip. Parker snorts, and responds, "Miss Chin remains under AEGIS custody at the moment, aside from her time here at the school under her parole. That's subject to change as arrangements are made, but in the meantime we can make arrangements, as needed, for a visitation." "Sounds good," Jason speaks up again. "We need to talk with her, as a group and individually, to make this a joint decision. Maybe a reception tonight at the Quill Residence. Just her and us." Well played, Jason. Parker hesitates for half a beat. "We'd want to make the appropriate arrangements, first." He shrugs, conveying no sense of urgency. "You were the folks who seemed in a rush, wanting this wrapped up in a few days. Tonight's good for us," he adds, glancing at the others to see if there's any disagreement. Parker exchanges a look with Walker. "That should be possible, but let us get back to you closer to the time, just to be sure." She glances at her watch. "I believe the three of us have an appointment with the Principal. We'll be in touch." "Thanks," Jason says. I cross over to the agents, intersecting them at the door. On the way I pass Jason. "Thank you," I say to him. He nods, with that smile of his. "No problem. We'll see you later." I nod back, throw the others as honestly pleasant a look as I can manage, and, Agent Parker in the lead, Agent Waters in the van, we leave.