If they're all out to get you, are you actually paranoid? Hey, happy new semester! Now with three times as much social awkwardness and romantic oh-my-godness as the first one! * * * I have lost count of how many adults have told me that high school was the best days of their lives. If this is actually true for me, I might as well go back and let those pygmies flay me alive and throw me into the volcano. Or whatever end they had planned for me. Because damn . * * * And thank you, once again, Dad, for designing the Qdiscs to be just that much wider than the standard US parking space. Not that you ever anticipated I would be riding one to school. Except that, yeah, for all the not-blending-in that riding a hypertech hovercraft to high school entails, it's a hell of a lot better than being dropped off by a Quill towncar. (I guess I could check out another pool car, but I've been reluctant to do so since the last time. They might say no.) 1. The Assembly Instead of normal first period, we have a Start of The Semester Assembly. Bear in mind that I first attended high school at the beginning of my Senior Year. I still feel like I have attended far more assemblies than any human should be required to. Seriously. There are probably international agreements signed in Switzerland that set standards around this. And, yeah, of course the United States isn't a signatory, but I plan to bitch about it anyways. * * * Summer is here. I am useless about this kind of thing. Saturday night, hanging and chilling and just being real with the team, it was all good. Here, Monday morning, running into Summer sitting next to Aria, with Leo next to Aria -- My head locks up with awkward. She's seen me. She smiles and waves (because of course she smiles and waves, because she's wonderful and guileless and clueless and I did something awful to her and she's waving ). So running away is not an option. The seats up toward the front of the assembly (because of course I sit toward the front so of course Leo does, too) are filling up, so I end up next to Leo. Because that's not awkward, either. * * * My left thigh vibrates. It's the phone in the left upper cargo pocket. Mobile use at school is tightly restricted for some reason. Use at an assembly is strictly verboten. Who's texting me? I carefully, surreptitiously, pull out the phone. Glance down my leg at the hand-shrouded screen. Hello hero Jesus. I haven't heard anything from Alycia in days, not since she vanished into the bowels of AEGIS without a fare-thee-well. For all I know, she's been rendited to some black site in Syria. I've trusted Leo. He said he had the angle. He said he had this. I've assumed it's cool. Getting the message, I realize I have a huge reservoir of not-cool bubbling up from the ground around me. Where are you? What's going on? Are you okay? We need to talk about your dad. We need to talk about my dad. Are you still cool about the whole memory zipper thing? Are we okay, you and me? Do you want to -- I am not rational about Alycia Chin. I don't know why. I should answer her. I should talk to her. Wherever she is. She might need my help. She might need -- I slip the phone back into my pocket. If I do this, do this as I want to, I'm going to be that guy sitting there texting madly, face aglow from the screen, while the entire auditorium, students and teachers and principal-up-at-the-podium, stare at me, as I continue on, oblivious. With my fly open. Because of course . She's with AEGIS. She's able to text me. Whatever's going on, it can wait a few minutes. * * * The speech from the Principal goes on forever. It's probably more like forty minutes than forever, but Einstein had a fun quote about relativity, and it so applies here. If Leo notices my antsiness, he doesn't say anything. Even if he doesn't, he still doesn't say anything. Is he okay? Are we cool? At last, the speech ends, and I pull out my (very cool) Qphone and text her back. Hey And, after a moment: Sssshhh no texting during the assembly How does she know I'm at an assembly? Am I being remotely monitored? Is she actually -- I look around. There's just a mass of students, milling out of the auditorium. My eyes drift up to the sound room, the light bars, even though I really don't think (really!) she's up in the rafters with a sniper rifle. Really. Jesus W. Christ in a dirigible, what the hell is wrong with you? Well, hell, I dunno -- I'm waiting on tenterhooks for the opportunity to recode my brain and merge my memories with the girl I inexplicably love and who's publicly threatened to kill me for nine of the last twelve months. What's to be overwound about? It's time for class. I make a non-committal set of farewells to Leo, and Aria, and Summer (always being very careful to get their names right), and head up the long, poorly-pitched stairs to the top of the auditorium.
2. Home Ec I find my locker -- still a single, thank Bog, given the complaints I hear from folk doubling up with the Halcyon High South kids. Maybe they're afraid of what I might be bringing from home. Or what might happen in a Jason Quill locker. I can't exactly blame them. * * * I'm taking Home Ec this semester. Family and Consumer Science. It's the most grounded class I can think of and, honestly, I'm kind of tired of microwave lasagna, pizza, and chips (sorry, Harry). I've lived in a world of the bizarre -- camp rations, gourmet meals in Paris, eating our own horses once in Azerbaijan (don't go there) ... If I weren't constantly on adventures, my diet would have me dead two years ago. If I'm really going to retire, rejoin the real world -- I need to know how it works. I reach the Home Ec class, wheel around the corner ... ... slow ... ... stop. I recognize some faces. Some are relatively innocuous -- a Pony, Nono Rodriguez. as a stray example whose name I actually know. The rest ... Aria. Summer. Alycia. I swear to God, I feel the nanobots start to harden up, flipping into fight-or-flight armor-of-god mode in response to my own brain gibbering around in circles and treating this as an extinction-level event. I pivot on my heels and exit. * * * Okay, yeah, that's a reaction only appropriate for the emotionally disturbed person, the target of assassins, or a denizen of a teen laff-riot comedy. I'm not sure which is the preferable answer right now. * * * I stand outside the classroom door, trying not to hyperventilate. It's synergy, mind you. Summer in the room would be awkward + wonderful. She's -- All right, add Aria. Who I feel like is giving me the stink-eye every time I see her, probably because of Summer, and I know I freaking deserve it. That alone would be awkward. Add in Alycia. Alycia alone? Hell, I proved that in the Sepiaverse, right? Okay, yeah, that was a little different. I am so tired of this. Really. What the hell is wrong with me? * * * Yeah, the ex is bad enogh. And the girlfriend. At least I don't have to deal with the boyrfrie-- "Jason?" Leo. "What's --" He peers into the room. At least he has the good graces to let his eyes widen a bit. He turns back to me. "Dude. C'mon. I know. She's freaking scary. But you gotta man up. Take a deep breath. Play it cool." Easy for him to say. It's not like it's he's got any romantic conflicts in there. "Look, I'm going in," Leo says. "Just ... suck it up, Jason. I know you can do it. But -- I don't want to be late." He slips into the room. I take a deep breath. I suck it up. The bell rings. Mr. Quill," I hear an adult teacher voice say, "are we keeping you from something?" I can't be tardy. I walk in. It's only a class. It's only a class. It's only laughter. It's only laughter. It's only -- -- horrible -- -- mocking laughter. (Carl Sagan -- "But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." I'm not feeling like Columbus or Fulton.) I march, resolutely, to the nearest desk. Alycia is smirking at me. Summer is smiling, as she does. Aria is -- Leo -- Fine. Let them laugh. I'm Jason Quill. I am -- Seated. At last. Mr. Piras flips open his three-ring binder. "Thank you. I intend to cover a broad array of course material, to inculcate self-sufficiency and wise behavior. But the state requires I cover certain other, extraneous material. And so, in particular for you, Mr. Quill, we will be kicking the semester off this week by tackling our Family Health and Sexual Education unit." Of. Course. We. Are.
3. Study Hall And at last it's time for Study Hall. I'm more than ready for it. Granted, the rest of the day has been relatively serene compared to an assembly where I had to decide where to sit in relationship to Leo and Summer and Aria (and there's a metaphor for you), and Alycia texted me out of the blue. Or a home ec class where Summer and Aria and Leo and Alycia were all there, and we got to talk about human sexuality. Or, for that matter, getting text messages from Barbara that Rosa Rook wants to meet with me. And that she wants to me with me about that apartment block where the Vyortovian reality bomb went off, and which we've been unable to acquire. And that she wants to do this at the actual apartment block. Because none of that doesn't dire. So I have that to look forward to after school (and Otto's going to drive me, which actually makes me feel better). Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Other classes were other classes. AP and XP types of thing in math, bio, US History, Engish Lit. Interesting stuff, though I could probably test out on all of that. But that's not the point, right? Socialization is what I need. Dad said that and, for once, he wasn't wrong. This morning's escapades prove that. Which makes it kind of mysterious as to why I don't have a major panic attack when I open the door to the Study Hall class and see who's there. At some point, the fight-or-flight reflex just sort of wears out, I guess. * * * I take in everyone, of course. Me am big brain, plus Rusty drilled situational awareness into me to a fare-thee-well. But I take each individual in turn, left to right because I need to save the last for last. Agent Waters, Leo's handler / liaison / probation officer, is there with another AEGIS agent. Waters is an interesting duck -- he's AEGIS, but he's helped the group as well as helping Leo, so that cuts him a lot of slack with me. I'm not sure who the other agent is with him, but she doesn't look like a noob. I give them a nod. Adam has textbooks scattered all around him. I hope he doesn't have a killer load this semester, after all the stress he's already under. He gives me a wan smile, and I give him a warmer one, and he flips his eyes back the book in front of him. Summer waves at me with a big smile and of course it's wonderful and of course it's guileless, and it still makes me feel like shit because of how I treated her, especially with Alycia in the same freaking room -- -- and I'm still glad as hell she's here, at school and at an impromptu meeting of the Menagerie. Or not-so-impromptu, I suspect, and missing Charlotte, too. I try to meet Summer's smile watt for watt, and do a poor job of it, but if she notices, she doesn't say anything. Of course. I transfer the smile over to Aria, who nods coolly. Yeah, they've been talking, which means -- Leo gives a small wave, "'sup?" His eyes aren't casual, though. Harry's next. He's tense. Given he's closest, I can understand that. He gives me an oh-so-subtle Look to my left, man, look to my left series of eyeball flicks. I nod and smile. I got this, man. I don't got this, but he gets fractionally less visibly tense. And then, off to the side, back to the wall, slouched in her desk -- and I'm still wondering who found a red "Q5K! 2017" polo shirt for her to wear, and why she agreed to wear it. I hated the graphics for that event, especially the running Quill logo with the pumping arms and legs and little hexagonal drips of sweat flying off -- but I have to admit, she makes it look good and focus, concentrate, breathe -- Alycia. She has that smile on her face she so often does, like she knows the punchline before you've even realized it's a joke. I try to return the smile, but now it's my turn to be a little tense, a little stiff. Plus it's across half the room. She shoots me with a finger gun. Good times. I turn to Waters & Co. "So, not normal study hall." The other agent turns to Waters, too, and he sighs. "Yeah. Go ahead and get seated, Mr. Quill, and we'll get started." I nod, and grab a desk. It's furthest away from Alycia, closer to Summer and Adam, but the point is to put myself between the others and the AEGIS duo. * * * Waters strolls to the front of the room, a rare raked classroom here at Gardner, with the desks up on tiers around the teaching area. He doesn't bother with the podium, or the big smart screen behind him. I have the sense that an overhead projector and 3x5 cards is Waters' speed, but he doesn't even bother with that. "Thanks, everyone. This is your actual Study Hall group, which should be convenient for you kids, but for today we've got something a bit less academic to go over. We wanted to let you know what's in the works." That gets everyone's visible attention, even if he already had it less obviously. I glance around as Adam marks his page and closes his book. Harry's backpack is suddenly closed and zipped. Even Alycia's straightened up a bit. Waters goes on, "So, Miss Chin here: she's here on probation and her own parole, under the watchful eye of AEGIS. Special Agent Parker is her handler." And that's who the other agent is and why she's here. I'm kind of sorry Waters doesn't have Alycia in his portfolio, too. When I look over at Parker, she's already looking at me, and not in a friendly, casual fashion. "Miss Chin surrendered herself to the agency," Waters continues. "And we've reached certain agreements to have her provide information on her father's activities, and helping those involved to be brought to justice." Way to go, Alycia! I turn back to her and give her an encouraging smile. Doing something like that can't be easy -- or safe, for that matter -- but it's a huge step. I hope it's a huge step. "We're working on some other arrangements, too, which is the real reason for this get-together. Miss Chin has shown an interest in -- well, turning over a new leaf, you might say. The Menagerie happens to be an organization with peers in her age range with whom she has some previous interaction. To that end, our intent is to have her be a member of the team, and so we thought it would be best to meet with you. Regardless of the disposition of that question, she will be attending Gardner Academy this year as part of her probation." I don't quite get up and make a giant fist-pumping action, but I feel that way on the inside. I've been trying to figure out how to get her on the team, and, once I knew what was going on with her, had been going to propose it. Having AEGIS recommend it instead helps keep it from being too much a "Jason, you're be ridiculous" moment. Alycia gives us all a smile that suddenly seems a lot more friendly, even shy, than snarky. Waters adds, "My understanding is that, at present, Leo is in charge of field operations, but we're officially presenting this to Mr Quill --" And every eye is on me. "-- since it's his name on the application form on file. 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." Wait, what? Dammit, no, we'd never updated all that stupid paperwork. Why should we? I was perfectly happy handing off the team leadership to Leo, he seemed happy to take it on, and nobody on the team seemed to mind. I hadn't even thought that AEGIS would really cavil at it, even if Leo's on probation with them, or whatever that relationship is. I mean, I've never worried about Leo being influenced or leaned on by AEGIS to do something against us -- it that happened, he'd come to us about it and we'd figure it out. So what happens when I resign? Or go inactive, or whatever we decide? Who will AEGIS deign to talk with then? Okay, fine, whatever, if they want to play this by the published org chart, we can do that. I half-raise my hand, and open my mouth to talk to Waters, when a voice breaks the silence. "I'd like to talk to Miss Chin. In private." Leo. He sounds angry. Well, given that Waters just demoted him (for AEGIS purposes), that's not surprising. But what does he want to talk with Alycia about? "You can step over to the corner," Waters suggests. "Only if you'll shut off whatever listening devices you'd be using on us." Parker speaks up for the first time, an English accent to her tone, but one that's faded a bit with government service here in the States. "Perhaps Agent Waters and myself can have a brief chat with Mr Quill. That should keep us little pitchers with big ears occupied while you have your little tête-à-tête." Leo looks at Waters, then nods to Parker. He gets up and heads over to Alycia. Dammit. If he's going to make trouble about this, I want to know, but maybe the best I can do is distract Waters and Parker. I join up with the two agents over in the opposite corner. "Mr. Quill, Special Agent Elizabeth Parker." She holds out a hand -- initially, I think, to shake mine, but it turns out she's handing me a business card. How mid-century proper. "Nice to meet you, Agent Parker. So you're Alycia's 'handler'? What exactly does that --" "Let's go over this other stuff first, Mr. Quill," Waters interrupts before I can finish my question and Parker can decline to answer as she already looks likely to do. Without pause, he starts to brief me on what I already knew about the government and Vyortovia -- blah blah Halycyon airspace blah active hostilities blah troops under the direction of the city including but not limited to the Menagerie, the JHHL, the Irregulators, and security forces under the employment of a subsidiary of Rook Industries. The last of which is an interesting way to spin matters, but Waters and AEGIS know the truth -- this is more to let us know what the official line is, which, given how the group is now in the cross-hairs of both sides, isn't a tremendous comfort. I only give it part of my attention, though. Another part is on this Parker lady, who's silently sizing me up while also paying attention to the goings-on across the room -- to which I'm also dedicating a part of my own attention, too. I mean, I doubt things are going to turn into a knife fight, but -- So that's why I see Leo turn and give me a thumbs-up. Which comes as a tremendous relief, on several levels. "All right," I break into Waters' dissertation, "That's cool, and we'll try not to cause an international incident until at least Thursday afternoon." I take a step away before he can continue, and turn to the rest of the team. They've been waiting patiently through all this. Not really fair to them, but -- "Hey, guys. I'll brief you later on the other stuff Agent Waters was bending my ear over, but -- I know I'm the one with the name at the top of the form and everything." I shake my head at the two agents. "Paperwork sucks, but that's nothing new. But you need to know, even if these guys expect me to make the decision about Alycia, 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." I look over at Alycia, who's watching me intently, maybe even warily. "For what it's worth, my vote is yes." I look back at them and snort. "And, yeah, yeah, I know I'm not the most objective judge about Alycia Chin." The expected laughter ripples through the group, which is what I wanted. "But that's how I feel about it. I want her on the team. I trust her." Adam's looking concerned, but he nods, gravely -- though it's unclear if he's agreeing, or just accepting what I've said. Summer has a grin on her face -- she probably figures this is good for me, therefore it's good with her -- but I don't want to assume. Aria looks more skeptical, but that's something to discuss, too. Harry, he's not buying it, at least not yet. Leo, still over by Alycia, has a half-smile on his face that he might have gotten through infection from her. And Alycia -- I can see her shoulders look a lot less bunched up, but aside from that, she just gives me a nod. I have no idea what I'm doing, but maybe I'm getting better at this stuff. Parker speaks up from behind me. "This is still early days yet," she says. She glances at Waters, who's got a frown, but toward whom and what is unclear. "We have support from AEGIS on this, notionally at least, and from the congressional oversight committee that needs to give their approval. The asset would be brought into your group anonymously, as she as been into this school -- her official name here is Alice Chan --" Harry quips, "Jeez, who'd ever suspect that?" Parker raises an eyebrow, looking over at me. "You'd be surprised, Mr Gale." I'm never going to hear the end of that, am I? I mean, who would have thought Alycia would actually infiltrate into the Quill organization, down in the warehouse, to steal some items she needed to rescue her dad? Calling herself "Alice Chan"? Well, I wouldn't have thought of it, that's for sure. Obviously. "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 preferred Miss Chin inserted into the local school as smoothly as possible, and then wished to ease your minds that she hadn't escaped and was stalking you in your private lives. Thus this meeting." "So where does she live?" Adam asks. "Like, does she have an apartment, or --" "Government housing," Alycia comments, the smirk back. 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." "A 'visitation' sounds good," I speak up. I'm not happy she's still in jail, but we can tackle that later, and I have some ideas on the matter. In the meantime, we need some time with her, without Frick and Frack here in attendance. I want the others to have a chance to talk with her (hell, I want a chance to talk with her), but I also want to get this memory merge thing taken care of. "We need to talk with her," I say, to the agents, "as a group and individually, to make this a joint decision. A reception tonight at the Quill Residence would be perfect." I add, "Just her and us." Parker's not happy about that. "We'd want to make the appropriate arrangements, first." I shrug, casually. "You were the folks who seemed in a rush, wanting this wrapped up in a few days. Tonight's good for us." Parker exchanges a look with Waters. "That should be ... possible -- but let us get back to you later today. Just to confirm." She glances at her watch. "And I believe the three of us have an appointment with the principal. We'll be in touch." "Thanks," I reply, politely. No point in torquing her off, even if I'm not feeling particularly friendly toward her right that moment. Alycia picks up her satchel and slings it over one shoulder. She crosses over to the agents, but stops when she gets to me. "Thank you," she says. Her voice is low, soft. Not a terrorist ranting. Someone feeling gratitude. I nod back, and try to give her an encouraging grin. "No problem. I meant it. And we'll see you later." She turns to the others, smiles at them, then exists with Parker and Waters. * * * I lean against the wall. "Well, that wasn't at all awkward or anything." Leo laughs. "You know, I'm happy to let you be in charge when it comes to dealing with AEGIS." "Thanks." I raise an eyebrow at him. What was that all about. He nods, as if reading my mind. "She's in." And there's a sigh of relief from me, as I understand. She agreed, back in the Sepiaverse, to the memory merge process -- but that seems like months ago (more like a few days), and she's been in prison during that time. Leo was making sure she was still on board. He was watching my back, like usual. "Wait, she's in?" Harry speaks up. In a second he's in front of me. "Are you saying Alycia Chin's in the Menagerie now? Because I have to tell you, I've got serious reservations --" "Nothing is settled," I say quickly. "Really. I was dead serious about thinking she should be, but also that we need a consensus about it from the team. That means everyone," I add, looking over at Summer and Aria. And then add, for good measure. "And also including Charlotte." "So we're getting together tonight?" Adam asks. "Yeah," I say, glancing at Leo. He's still the guy in charge. "We've got a couple of things to go over besides that. And first I need to let you guys know about something that came up today." I give them a quick rundown on the Rosa Rook meeting, which cheers them just like it did me. Adam volunteers to come along with Otto, which is cool (I really don't want to go there packing for bear, and I'm pretty certain I can take Rook two falls out of three -- but I don't trust her, and having a couple of allies nearby might come in handy. And that ends up chewing up the rest of Study Hall. I'm glad that's going to be a thing for the team (except Charlotte, dammit), because even if I'm going into inactive membership / retirement stuff, I don't want to lose touch with these people. They're good. They make me better (when they don't overflow my teen drama buffers). So not that bad of a day at school after all. * * * The meeting with Rosa Rook is interesting, and portentous. But I'll have to talk about that some other time. I've got to get things ready for the party tonight. I hope Harry's bringing chips.