My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 6

“This is not Maine,” I said, scuffling around the train station.

Mark was without words.

I slumped down onto a bench.

“I guess we took the wrong train,” he said. “Somebody must have switched our tickets. I knew something was up when we were told we had gone to the wrong train. I memorized the numbers and everything.”

“I know you did,” I said. Mark’s memory was impeccable.

“But we took the wrong train,” he repeated. “What are we supposed to do here? I don’t know if we can catch another train.”

I can help you with that, said a voice in the back of my head. I have a place for you to stay.

And who are you? I asked it back. It didn’t answer, so I repeated the message.

I’m… like you. We all are.

Epselans? I wondered.

Not Epselans, the voice spoke back. Not all of us. But all rejected, because of our powers—the way we don’t fit into the Agency’s categories. We aren’t their precious wielders.

I was a little hesitant about following any advice given to me by an anonymous voice that was clearly angry with the Agency—and I was sure Mark wouldn’t want me to follow it at all. He’d probably tell me that it was from the assassin bogeyman. But we were stuck, and we couldn’t stay in the train station all night. We were already attracting attention. I needed to get Mark moving in the right direction—and more importantly, to know what the right direction was.

“Mark,” I said, “we need to grab our luggage and go. We can’t just sit here.” I looked pointedly at the bystanders. A few of the more inquisitive people were starting to listen in.

Mark got the picture. “But where are we going?” he asked in a low voice. “Do you know any better than I do?”

“Well, first we need to get out of this station. There are too many people around here. We need to get far away.”

Where are we going? I asked the voice. I had apparently lost it again, so I repeated the message like last time, and, also like last time, it responded on the second try.

You’re at the train station on Larkveer, right?

Right.

Go west. Go around all the buildings. It’s about a mile. I’ll meet you there, and we’ll cross a marsh. The marsh is dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but on the other side is a beach with our camp and pretty decent shelter.

If you’re thinking of deserting us on the marsh, I warned, let me remind you that I can fly. And I can carry heavy stuff.

I know, it responded.

Then you’ll meet us alone?

Alone and unarmed. You, however, may bring as many weapons as you like.

Can I trust you?

Would you believe me if I answered that question?

Probably not.

Then you’d better start off—your friend is getting suspicious because you’re standing still.

“Phoeb?” Mark said, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh,” I said. “Just zoned out a minute. Listen, we need to look for somewhere outside the city—a marsh or something where we can camp out.”

“Sounds good,” Mark said, but he still looked a little unsure. Before he could change his mind, I picked up my bulging backpack and took off westward.

We traveled the predicted mile. Fortunately, there were buildings all the way, so I didn’t have to make excuses to Mark about why we were still walking.

Whoever was behind the voice must have been following our progress, because he was just walking up to where we were heading, along the edge of the marsh.

“Ah, hello,” he said brightly. “I’m glad you decided to come. I’m unarmed and alone, as promised.”

“How do we know that?” Mark growled.

“Yowch! Bear, eh? Protective mind. You, on the other hand…” He turned to me. “You’re just… complicated. I like that.”

“What’s your name?” I asked, not attempting to decide whether his remark was a compliment or not.

“I’m Lucian,” he said. “I’m a telepath, in case you didn’t notice.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Mark muttered, clearly not happy I’d led him this way.

“Calm down,” Lucian said. “You’re safe here. Your Phoebe is an awfully good judge of character—I can always tell.”

“And… er, how are we supposed to know you’re alone?” I asked Lucian, cautiously.

He shrugged. “Can’t you feel the emptiness of the place? That warehouse back there is the last mark of human life for miles—apart from our camp.”

He was right. The place felt bare.

“Come on,” Lucian said cheerfully, clearly delighted. “Let’s cross the marsh. I can read the minds of the plants, and they know which path is safe.”

“The minds of the plants?” I asked, confused.

“Oh, sure!” he said. “Plants have minds. Ask any Earth Anoki—those people have the talent to talk to them.”

I raised my eyebrows and looked at Mark, who didn’t seem ready to go anywhere. “I can fly us out of here, you know,” I said.

“If your strength holds out,” he responded.

I sighed. “Do you have a better plan?”

“…No. But I don’t like this one.”

“It’s what we have,” I said, “and I’m going with it.” I started purposefully towards Lucian, who was positively beaming by now. Mark was forced to follow.

“Women,” Lucian consoled Mark.

“She’s not a woman—she’s a girl,” Mark said, though it was less taut.

Lucian gave a sympathetic look, but kept smiling and led us on. It was another mile’s walk through the marsh, which we achieved in about half an hour, with Lucian’s careful directions.

“It rained recently,” Lucian said, sighing. “It makes things so hard to navigate.”

But we eventually walked out of the marsh, scraping mud off our shoes on fallen trees.

“That over there is the camp,” Lucian said. It wasn’t far.

“Are we… safe now?” I asked. “Are there any humans around here?”

“Sure,” Lucian said. “I’m human. But there aren’t humans who will freak out. It’s not news to anyone that there’s a phoenix Epselan on the loose—and we’ve finally found you!”

“You knew?” I asked, puzzled.

“Of course!” he said. “Don’t you know that there are people who keep tabs on these things?”

“Oh, yeah, we know,” Mark said. It was obvious that even Lucian’s buoyant, nonthreatening demeanor was not earning Mark’s trust. It was earning mine, though—I was starting to like him more and more.

“Yeah—word of you has flitted around the Agency for years! Mostly rumors, though. I remember someone saying you could shoot lasers out of your fingers, and someone else told me that you’d already died and had come back to life! I mean, who knows if that trait actually crossed over?”

I certainly didn’t. This story was getting stranger by the minute.

“Okay,” I said. “Well, if we’re safe, then I’m ditching this hiding spell before it goes on me. That train ride was too long anyway.”

Lucian watched in amazement as feathers once again prickled through my arms, and wings showed up under the hoodie. As always during my changes, I wasn’t completely conscious of everything that was going on around me, including the changes in my appearance. I did, however, feel the magic pouring back into my system.

“Much better,” I said, taking my windbreaker off and stretching out my red-gold wings. “Much, much better.” I noticed that Mark hadn’t changed; I guessed that he didn’t quite trust his polar bear side around here just yet.

“So the part about the hiding spells is true?” Lucian asked.

“They don’t work well for me,” I said. “My magic is screwy. Come on—you wouldn’t have food somewhere around here, would you? I’m starving.”

“Is it true that your human side actually has mage power? Like, the kind of magic that human magic wielders have?”

“Yup,” I said. “Otherwise, I probably couldn’t do magic at all.”

I could tell Lucian was absolutely bursting with questions, but I was pretty sure that Mark would explode if I said anything more. I knew he thought I’d been reckless. I knew he wanted to tell me off. But it was my own safety I was risking, and if Mark couldn’t handle that, then it was his problem.

I still wasn’t in the mood to answer a bunch of questions at the moment, though, so I took off. Circling far above my entourage, I could see Lucian gazing up at me with fanatic attention.

I landed just outside the camp, which was impressively large. Lucian and Mark ran to catch up with me.

“Hey, who are you?” asked a girl with short blonde hair, almost the second I touched the ground.

“I’m Phoebe,” I said. “And you?”

“Are you the phoenix?” she asked suddenly. “Cool! You’re, like, a legend by now. How’d you come up with it? Or were you natural-born?”

“Uh…” I started, but Mark and Lucian had caught up.

“Oh, you’ve met Key,” Lucian said.

“Who?”

“Me,” said the blonde girl.

“Her real name’s Keisha, but considering her talents…” Lucian said.

“Why?” I asked. “What can you do?”

“Key here can hack, crack, or break into anything. Computers do her bidding—they practically program themselves. She’s actually part computer herself. See, most of us are magical anomalies—the result of mages’ spells gone wrong. These are all the magical outcasts of America.”

I looked around, trying to spot someone else. The place itself gave off the vibe of a sort of rebellious hope—hope that something might eventually go right. But since night was falling, most people were inside their tents and, in some cases, tepees. I even saw an igloo, right in the middle of Florida.

Key’s mischievous hazel eyes scanned Mark. Mark scanned her back. I watched the mutual approval take place.

“Well?” Lucian said, smiling at me again. “Do you like it? Should we take a look around?”

“I think Mark might be tired,” I told him. “He’s been carrying a laptop all the way out here, so he had the heaviest bag.”

“What kind of laptop?” Key asked.

“Come on, then,” Lucian interrupted, dragging me away. “You’ve got to see the rest of the gang—and our training grounds. It’s great!”

He pulled me off to a giant tepee stuck randomly into a row of tents.

“That’s Lottie,” he said, nodding at a woman in her thirties, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Hey, Lottie! This is Phoebe. Phoebe, Lottie can sense possibilities.”

“Like what?”

“Like, I know when there’s only one way out of something,” Lottie said, once she’d come close enough. “And I usually know what it is. I couldn’t always tell you the best way if there’s more than one way to do whatever it is, but I could tell you how many options you have, and sometimes what they are.”

“So multiple-choice questions really don’t give you much help?” I asked.

“More like everything is a multiple-choice question. So what’s your oddity?” she asked. Apparently, this was a major talking point around here.

“I’m a phoenix Epselan,” I said simply.

“So it is true. I think you have… a friend. Lucian, do you know where Leslie is?”

“Leslie? She’s here?” I repeated, stunned.

“Of course I know where she is,” Lucian said, annoyed. Somehow, I found it refreshing to see him while he wasn’t smiling.

“I figured you might say that, for some reason,” Lottie replied, sighing.

“I think she should see Teague first,” Lucian said.

“But you can’t see Teague,” Lottie said.

“That’s the point!” Lucian said, grinning again.

“Is he invisible?” I asked.

“Yup,” Lottie said. “And if you’re not careful…” She didn’t need to finish the sentence. I could only imagine what might happen if you weren’t careful around an invisible person. “But Leslie was particularly distressed. She desperately wants to see you.”

“She… she does?”

“Come on,” Lottie said. “I’ll lead you away from this madman.”

I got the feeling that Lottie didn’t exactly enjoy having a telepath poking around in her head, and had come to despise Lucian. Still, Lucian was… well, Lucian. I couldn’t see him as mean. Annoying, but not mean. And he was trustworthy.

Leslie was waiting, in half-sheep form, against a tree.

“So my plan worked,” she said evenly. “You’re here.”

“Did you switch our tickets?” I asked. I knew I was jumping to conclusions, but that was the only reason we were in Florida, anyway.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Didn’t you want magic lessons? I couldn’t do that in a human neighborhood. Since I knew you’d be travelling by train anyway, it seemed the obvious option. To bring you here—where you’d fit—where you would, for once, be understood and liked. I can’t predict that these rebels will take as nicely to the polar bear, though. He’s in league with the Agency—they won’t trust that he won’t turn them in, won’t bring them to the Agency. Like he’s doing with you.”

“Wait—how’d you know we were travelling by train?”

“He’s a polar bear! Can you expect one of them to want to fly somewhere? I knew he thought it would be urgent enough not to want to take you by car—or maybe because he wants to catch up with his friend.”

That’s right, I suddenly remember. The second telepath I’ve met today.

“Oh, I’m not a telepath,” Leslie said. “I can only read minds; I can’t talk back… unless the other person is a telepath or mind reader, that is, but then they have to read my mind. I can’t force the information on them. Made friends with Lucian quickly enough.”

“So… it would be bad? If I ended up at the Agency?”

“No,” Leslie said. “Not bad for you. Not bad for an impending threat. But for someone who can talk to crickets? Yes. Bad for someone who’s good at finding four-leaf clovers. Bad for someone who can breathe underwater. Bad for someone who can make wood carve itself. The Agency impedes your freedom until it’s studied you enough that it knows how to deal with you. That’s bad. And it’s worse if you’re the last in a long, long line of people to be studied. Right now, you’re more important than some Joe dancing around with musical grasshoppers.”

“Hey!” came from across the yard.

“See, there’s a reason these guys stick together,” Leslie concluded. “They’d rather be free out here, alongside each other, than stuck with the Agency, torn away from any opportunity to use their talents until the Agency gets around to Joe and his crickets. This is just a place for people who have odd abilities… unimportant talents… useless little knacks. And it would be safer, much safer, for them if they were approved by the Agency and declared as harmless as they are, because there is another group who is after odd and unknown people, but not to study them or help them control themselves. They make the Agency seem innocent.”

She paused. “Do you trust me now?”

I didn’t say anything for a while. “Almost.”

She smiled. “Then maybe you’ll survive.”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 at 8:26 pm and is filed under Phoenix. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Phoenix: Chapter 6”

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