Salamander 2 part 1
Monday, 26th of November, 2035
Our team met in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town. We only ever gathered like this under exceptional circumstances; with the state of current politics, our duties were becoming even more treacherous. We knew each other only by code numbers, taking pains to conceal our true identities. We were all dressed in plain black clothes, both for their concealing properties and their nondescript nature.
The head of the team, known simply as One, was a distinguished man with a commanding presence. He was tall, with long, dark black hair bearing just the slightest touch of grey, and a matching beard. He carried with him an aura of authority, suggesting he was perhaps a teacher or a politician, or even a preacher. He looked across the circle of assembled men and women, his piercing blue eyes commanding complete silence.
"I'll make this brief. We have received a target through one of our benefactors. Details, along with your cover identities, are in the file Three has issued you with," he said, indicating a small, bespectacled man beside him.
One paused, and then continued. "This demon has managed to evade a group of altruistic, but ultimately naïve supporters of the cause, so it is already somewhat prepared. To make matters worse, she has found protection with other victims of demonic affliction. Therefore, we must be cautious, and move slowly. We’ll begin with surveillance. Four and Five will handle this," he said, glancing at me, then a small blonde woman at my right. Her innocent, angelic features were deceptive; I knew for a fact she had blades and other weapons concealed all about her person, and could gut a man (or one of these demons) faster than you could blink. I had worked with her before; she was incredibly ruthless, deadly, and dedicated to the cause. We didn't tend to meet and chat as a group, as that sort of socialising was very dangerous for people like us and detrimental to the mission, but still, people talked while on the job, and as the rumours had it, she was a nun. Apparently her family had been killed by the demons, so she had declared a vendetta on all demonkind, dedicating herself to eradicating them. Of course, such rumours were almost always false. She may have just as well been an average housewife with a penchant for knives, out to work off some aggressions.
One turned back to look at Five and I and said, "Your assignment will be to work out how best to track it once we begin the hunt. Our information suggests this demon is adept at stealth and infiltration, so we must be able to compensate for this, and predict its movements. We also need to know its propensities, its habits. Once we know its routines and haunts, we will devise some tests to confirm the extent of this monster’s capabilities. When we have, safely at a distance, determined how best to handle the target, we will pounce. Now, let us pray for assistance in our fight against the forces of darkness."
We all bent our heads silently in prayer for a few moments. As I glanced at the photo of the tall, brown-haired girl with vaguely reptilian features, I prayed she was a worthy adversary. I wanted to take my time tracking and killing her.
It had been a while since my last good hunt, and for the Knights, the hunt, followed by the clean kill, besting the demon in combat, was the purest form of worship.
After all the excitement of the kidnapping and rescue, things calmed down a bit. The wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly, but eventually Gwen was made my legal guardian. We stayed with D and Joyce till Gwen felt we should try and find a place of our own, so we wouldn't overstay our welcome.
It was a bit of a shock for both of us, to suddenly find we were poor. We had grown up in a relatively well off family, and while we weren't trust fund wasters who didn't know the value of money, we had never been in a situation where we had to worry about where our next meal was coming from. We got some help from the government, but not a lot. Gwen had to find a job to keep a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food in our mouths. I felt a little guilty about this; Gwen had been saving to go to university, and now she was forced to work to support the two of us, giving up her dream to help me. I resolved to pull my weight somehow, maybe try and help pay the bills. For now, I would do my best to do the cleaning, washing, et cetera, so Gwen didn't have to do all that in addition to a hard day’s work.
There wasn't a lot to do at our new place, since our means were so limited it was very small. With some assistance from the government and what Gwen earned, we rented a small one bedroom flat. It was in a reasonably nice part of town and was nicely furnished, if a little spartan. It had a sofa-bed in the living room, that I slept on, and then a small single bedroom that Gwen used. A little bathroom sat opposite Gwen's room with a bath with shower head. There was a tiny kitchen off the living room with a hob, fridge, sink, microwave, and a small oven, enough to cook meals for the two of us. It wasn't much but it was our place. With just me and Gwen there, it felt more like a home than our parents big farm house ever had, warm and cosy. In stark contrast to the big, cold, draughty, forbidding place I had grown up in. Often in the evenings me and Gwen would sit curled up on the sofa together watching some TV or reading, happy in each others' company.
One complication in helping out with the chores was my still-damaged hand. It had almost regenerated now, but there had been an annoying few times where I had difficulty. Even some simple things like opening jars, putting on my clothes, and tying shoelaces could prove problematic. Every day, my sprouting fingerlets gained more motion, but it was still very frustrating at times. I tried to count my blessings in that it wasn't permanent; some people had to live through worse problems than mine, problems that weren’t going to self-repair like my hand.
Now that the issue of who would look after me was resolved, I would be going back to school fairly soon. Gwen had found us a small flat, not far from D's house, so I would be going to the same school as her.
I was dreading being around so many people, partly due to the emotional onslaught my empathic senses caused, and I was also sure that my new body would single me out as prime bullying material. The fact that D and Jane would both be there was something that calmed me a little.
I had been practising with my abilities. I had gained some control over my fire abilities, but I still ended up incinerating a few outfits calling the fire out of me. This didn't please Gwen, since we couldn't really afford to keep buying lots of new clothes. I kept practising my stealth ability, trying out the non-invisible option where I could vary the image I projected. I was beginning to get fairly good at it, able to hold a small alteration, something like a simple mask, for hours at a time. More complex stuff still wore me out pretty fast, but I was improving with practice.
My abilities weren't the only things I had been learning about, Gwen had been trying to teach me the fine art of being a lady. D and Jane had also been educating me along those lines, except their method seemed to involve more shopping and something called girl power. Gwen patiently taught me all sorts of disgusting things about my new anatomy. D and Jane focused on getting me to walk, talk, and think like a girl. They even, with Gwen approval, tried to get my ears pierced, unfortunately they failed to factor in my body's regenerative capabilities. If it can regrow a hand two small holes were hardly a challenge.
I missed seeing D every day, now we had moved out on our own I didn't see her or Jane as much. It was the one good thing about me having to go back to school.
Sooner than I had hoped, it was my first day at Wilynsford secondary school. Gwen and I had walked over bright and early to register. It was a cold day, being late November, so I had my coat on with the hood up. This was only partly due to the cold; I was a bit nervous of people seeing me. Even after nearly a month getting used to the new me I still wasn't all that comfortable being around people I didn't know. I had always been a little shy, but my change had only accentuated this.
The school itself was a fairly modern building of glass and brick. It had a playing field out in back for sports, and a series of interlinked buildings separated with small paved areas. It was a lot larger than my old school in Little Greenvale. Back then, there had only been a few classes divided by year, with no more than twenty people in a class.
As Gwen and I negotiated the busy halls, the sheer number of people around me made the place oppressive. My empathic senses bombarded my emotions from every angle. The storm of a thousand different emotions screamed at me from all sides in the packed corridors, like a horrible, undying scream I couldn't block my ears from. I wanted to run away, find somewhere quiet and lay down for a while. I tried using some of the mental exercises Jane had been teaching me to block out the chatter. It helped slightly, the flaring sensations around me fading back a bit. The sensations reduced to a dull background noise with those closest to me still piercing through, but even then diminished.
It was very odd knowing how people were feeling all the time, some telepaths more or less blocked me out, but in most situations I knew what people around me felt. It had taken some time to realise that's what I was sensing and then some experience to tie up emotional states with their various indicators. It was very hard to describe to people what emotions felt like to me. It was a bit like trying to explain a colour to someone who had never seen it. People seemed to broadcast textures at me heat, or light, or colours, or physical sensations all seemed to combine with other indescribable stuff to tell me what a person was feeling. The textures were complex though like they were a single point in a huge continuum of emotions. It wasn't as simple as a big 'I am happy' sign. I had tried to explain this to D and Gwen, but neither really got it. Jane seemed to understand to a degree, mainly due to her telepathy allowing her similar senses, but even then it sounded different for her, maybe every empath or telepath perceived it differently. I guess in some way telepathy must be harder, I could sense when people were eyeing me up, which was bad enough, but at least I didn't have to hear what they were thinking of doing to me.
We arrived at the office, and went in. Gwen began talking to the secretary, and I pushed my hood back, sitting quietly in one of the seats. A few moments after I uncovered my face the secretary caught sight of me, and I felt bitter hate flare up.
"Not already," I thought to myself.
The secretary had stopped talking in mid sentence, about my timetable or some such, and was turning bright red. She just seemed about to explode, when a short grey haired lady with a kind smile walked out of the office behind her.
"Ah, you must be Mandy, the new student we were expecting. I'll take it from here, Mrs. Donnal." the lady said.
She ushered us into her office, and once we were seated, introduced herself. "I am Mrs. Thomas, the head teacher here. First of all, let me welcome you, Amanda, to Wilynsford secondary school. I hope you'll be very happy here. You'll start lessons in earnest tomorrow. For today I will have one of our staff give you a few tests, to work out what aptitude levels we need to place you in. Once we have that out of the way, we'll sort out your timetable and find you a house to join. We use the houses for administration, non ability tiered classes, things like Sports Day, and academic contests. We have a school cup that is awarded to the house with the highest number of commendations each year. Do you know anyone at the school already?"
"Yes. I know Dorothy Newman and Jane Collins," I replied.
"I know Dorothy, a larger than life character and a nice girl. She'll help you fit in, no doubt. I'll see if we can place you in the same house as her," she said. "I have some paperwork for your sister to sign. While she is doing that, let's get you started on your tests."
She handed Gwen a stack of forms, then led me out into the school. Turning to me, she said, "I'll give you a short tour on the way over. I'm sure your friends will fill in the rest. The school is divided into a series of blocks, each with a specific area of study. For example this is the Performing Arts block, and that over there,” she said, gesturing down a corridor, “is the science block. I'll give you a map of the school to go with your timetable, so you can find your way around more easily."
By this point lessons, had started, and the corridors and other open spaces were quiet. There was the odd face looking at us out of a window, but for the most part, we were ignored. I was surprised by how huge the place was. It had seemed big on my initial trip to the office, but now I was in the main areas it seemed even bigger. It was quite intimidating and I found myself feeling a little afraid of what this place would be like. My old school was very small by comparison, everyone knew who you were and what you were about. Here I was just one girl among the masses. It gave me a cold feeling inside and yet there was also some comfort in that idea, I didn't want to stand out. We made our way through the school grounds, eventually coming to a two-story box-like building Mrs. Thomas led me into.
"This is our library. Downstairs we have books, and a small selection of educational magazines. Upstairs, we have an area with some teaching tablets, plus a few classrooms. They have access to the school networks, and a screened subset of the Internet. Outside of lesson times students can make use of these facilities, but it tends to get quite busy," she said.
She led me upstairs to a small class room overlooking the front of the building.
"Take a seat and I'll get you the tests so you can get started," Mrs Thomas said, indicating one of the moulded plastic chairs.
I sat down and took my coat off. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Thomas returned with a battered-looking stand-alone tablet, which she plugged in and set in front of me.
"I'm afraid most of our portable units are rather old, but they do the job. I'll start you on your first test, which is in math, and I'll have Miss Gordon, our librarian, look in on you from time to time. It's fairly self-explanatory, but if you need help, just ask. You'll have half an hour to finish, and then we'll move you on to some other subjects. Don't worry too much if you have any difficulty; this is just so we have some idea of where to place you. We can always adjust things later as we get to know you. So any questions, or shall I start you off?" she asked.
"No, I'm ready," I said.
She tapped a portion of the display, smiled at me, and left the room. I started going through the test. Most questions were multiple choice, so I just had to pick the right answer. I found this way of testing a bit easier; back in Little Greenvale it had always been essays for everything. Extra marks were awarded if you could somehow make reference to MORFS being a curse. Learning was more about showing you had the proper moral compass than getting a good education.
We also had only pen and paper for our lessons. Even though the area was quite wealthy, it was also extremely old-fashioned. I recalled the first time I had asked my father, tentatively, if I could have a tablet of my own for a birthday. He had snorted derisively, and given me a two-hour lecture on what things were like when “he were a lad.” How they used quill pens, chalk blackboards, got the cane for doing anything wrong, considered using a machine for such things an affront to nature, and so forth. Looking back now I'm pretty sure he was making it all up, since even back in the early twenty-first century they had computers in schools, quill pens had been obsolete for decades, if not centuries, and caning had been illegal for a long time. At the time, I just meekly accepted it, counting myself lucky that he didn't decide to punish me beyond the simple lecture.
So I hadn't really had a lot of experience using tablets and the like. Still, it was fairly simple to operate. I quickly fell into the rhythm of answering the questions. I hoped I was doing okay, but it didn't give any feedback while you were taking the test, just outputting the questions one at a time, allowing you to go back or skip over if you got stuck or decided your answer was wrong.
After the test finished, the librarian, Miss Gordon walked in to set me up for the next test. I guess the software on the tablet informed her when my time ran out. She was a very pale, thin woman with brown hair. She gave me a smile, and asked me if I wanted to take a break before the next test. When I shook my head, she set the tablet up for the next set of tests, leaving me to it. I worked my way slowly through all the material, and it was soon time for the early morning break. At this point Miss Gordon said I should take a rest before going on to the next test, and invited me to look around the library.
There were a lot of people around upstairs, so I decided to have a wander around the books. It seemed pretty quiet; there was one group of people in the reference section, a few others distributed about. I guess most of the students didn't like books.
I found it hard to imagine someone not liking books, back in little Greenvale they had always been my escape. Books were one of the few pastimes my parents had allowed me, though my choice of subject mater often gained me some lectures, they at least let me enjoy a good read. Most of the books in my parent's house were on farming or religion, so I would often visit the villages small lending library. They didn't have much in the way of range, but I voraciously read all they did sci-fi, fantasy, crime, thrillers, horror, I read it all. I even read a few non fiction books learning bits and pieces of history. Each book gave me a glimpse into a life outside the one I was living, away from my hated family. It occurred to me that since my escape I had done a lot less reading, I guess I had gained a lot of the freedoms I had craved, that and I had been busy.
As I wandered about, I got a few glances from the few people about the place, but nothing more than slight interest. There were a few other MORFS survivors, about two in the study group, then one other walking around. No one seemed to be hassling them at all. My hopes lifted a bit; maybe I wouldn't have it so bad here.
I wandered through the stacks of books; they had a fiction section in addition to their reference books. I picked out a book with a cover that I liked, and started to have a read through. I got so engrossed in it that I didn't notice at first when someone was calling me.
“Tish,” Jane called at a normal volume, then again more loudly. “Tish!”
At this point I heard her, as did Miss Gordon who gave her a stern look.
“Sorry Miss,” Jane said, not looking very sorry.
She ran over to me, surprising me by giving me a hug.
“I thought I might find you here. They always do the testing stuff on the first day. How's it going?” she asked.
“Not too bad, it's a lot better than my last school's tests. There, it was all essays done by hand,” I replied.
“Cool, when do you start in earnest?”
“Tomorrow. Mrs. Thomas said she'd try and get me in the same house as D.”
“That'll be great, I'm in that house too! We'll get to hang out more. Since you moved out of D's, I haven't seen you as much.”
“Yeah, been really busy sorting out the new place, and all the paperwork for Gwen to be my legal guardian. It'll be nice to see more of you again.”
“How are things going emotions wise? You look a little skittish.”
“I'm a bit nervous, and being around this many people is a bit intense.”
“Yeah, I know. I think it's probably a lot worse for you than me, since your empathy is a lot stronger than my telepathy is. Did you try those exercises?”
I nodded, “That helped a lot. It cut down the feedback to a less painful level. I got a really nasty burn off the secretary though.”
“Oh, her. She's a nasty piece of work. They keep trying to get her to retire, or quit, but with no luck. Most of the time you don't have to go near her, but give her a wide berth.”
At this point, D came bounding in, literally. She also gave me a hug, lifting me clean off my feet, nearly using me to knock over a bookcase.
“Tish! It's great to see you,” she said, after putting me down. I wasn't sure if the two of them were genuinely that glad to see me, or if this was some sort of concerted effort to make me feel more at ease. It had been a while since I'd last seen them both. Mainly due to them being in school, me helping Gwen with setting up our new place, and my legal status. I didn't know, from my fairly limited experience of friendship as a girl, if this was normal. Still, they were both as happy to see me as I was to see them, which made me feel good.
Miss Gordon wandered over with a bemused expression on her face, “Why don't you girls take a seat or something, before you wreak the place.”
“Yes, Miss,” we all chorused. The synergy made us giggle.
We took a seat, and some of the fuss that we had caused calmed down a bit.
“So how's it going?” asked D.
“Not too bad, they're testing me today,” I replied.
“Bah, I hate tests,” said D emphatically.
“How are things at the new place?” Jane asked.
“OK, it's small but it does the job,” I answered.
“How small?” D asked.
“I sleep on the sofa,” I replied.
“Blimey! I wish you would have just stayed with us. You would have had space, and I would have seen you more,” D said.
“Yeah, I would have liked that too. But I know Gwen wanted us to get out on our own; she didn't want to impose on Joyce too much. She also wanted a fresh start, now it's just me and her in our own place,” I said.
“I can understand that,” said Jane. “You two have been through a lot, and now you need to depend on each other all the more.”
“I wish Gwen hadn't had to give up on her dream of going to University because of me. Now she has to look after me there's no way she can afford it, what little savings she had for it have been eaten up keeping a roof over our head,” I said thoughtfully.
“Well maybe it's not given up forever just delayed a bit,” said D.
“Yeah, I guess,” I replied.
Just then a bell rang and Jane jumped up out of her seat, “Well looks like it's noses back to the grind stone. Maybe see you later Tish, if not I'll see you when you start in earnest tomorrow.”
She gave me another hug, grabbed her bag, and was out the door. I saw Miss Gordon approaching, “Time to get back to the tests again I'm afraid, and you should be off to your next lesson Miss Newman.”
“Right ho Miss, well I'll see you later Tish,” D said giving my shoulder a squeeze. “If you can, you should come over tonight, I'm sure Mum would love to see you.”
“I'll try, see you later D,” I replied, she gave me a smile then wandered off.
“You seem to have some firm friends there,” said Miss Gordon. “They're nice girls, Dorothy is very protective of her friends too so you should do OK. Have you known each other long?”
“Not long I suppose. She saved my life when I was out on the streets, and a lot happened after that so I guess it seems like longer,” I replied.
Miss Gordon gave me a surprised look but didn't ask any further. Then she looked confused, “Why did she keep calling you Tish? Mrs Thomas said your name was Amanda.”
“Oh it's a nickname D has for me, based on some old TV character that sounded a bit like my old name,” I said, stopping myself when I thought I was probably saying too much.
“I see,” she said with a look that suggested she didn't, “Well if you head back up to the room. I'll get you started on the next set of tests.”
I headed back to the room, and sat down. Just as we were about to get started on the test, there was a commotion outside. Miss Gordon went to the window then said, “Wait here I'll be right back.” With that, she darted out the door.
I went over to the window, where I could see one of the MORFS survivors I had seen earlier, a small boy thick glasses and fur all over his face. He was surrounded by a group of larger boys, who were taking turns to hit him, and toss him back and forth. It brought back memories of my first meeting with D. The men on the street had done something similar with me. I could feel the fear and pain from the boy below.
One of the boys attacking him saw me watching, and began making obscene gestures at me. When I flinched back, they followed it up by throwing stones at the window. I had flash backs to the group of men attacking me, I could see in my minds eye their jeering faces as they tossed me around hitting me and feel their hate around me again burning into me. This combined with my already fragile state from being in a new place bombarded by others emotions, caused terror to overwhelmed me, and I dived under the desk. It was everything I had feared; I would be hated and scorned here, bullied like that poor boy hurt mentally and physically. If only I wasn't so different looking... if I was like Jane and could pass as normal things would be so much easier.
I huddled there under the table, listening to the stones ping off the window, and the shouts of abuse outside. I could feel the hate and fear radiate from the assailants and victim. A short while later I heard Miss Gordon's voice and felt her radiating fury at the boys, their own hate replaced by fear of this small woman. Despite her small stature, she was clearly one of those people you did not want to get on the bad side of. As I hid there, the seed of an idea planted itself in my mind. If I could pass as normal, things would be much easier, if only there were someway I could hide my obvious differences. There had to be a way.
Sometime later, Miss Gordon found me huddled under the table, and after she got me calmed down a bit, I started back on the tests.
The head teacher returned from getting Mandy set up with her tests. It was still odd to think of her like that; not as my brother, Mort, but my sister, Mandy. She acted mostly the same as before, but there were differences in ways both obvious and subtle. After what had happened with our parents, I resolved to do the best I could to care for her, even if it meant giving up some of the things I wanted to do. I would see to it that Mandy had the happy loving home Mort never did.
We were still going through a period of adjustment as we both got used to our new situation, but I hoped in time things would settle down, and Mandy could put the past behind her and work out who she was now.
A good first step was getting Mandy back in school. She had missed a few months of schooling, and I didn't want this incident to hold her back. It was important she got a good education.
Mrs Thomas, the friendly yet reasonably intense head teacher, gave me a pleasant smile, and then got down to business.
"Now, Miss Wilson, at Wilynsford Secondary we like to think we can provide education to all students, but it is important we are given all the necessary information, so we can know how to correctly educate the child," she said. "Now, Mandy seems calm and collected, maybe a little shy, but I had heard stirrings about some sort of family troubles, and her running away. I just want to get the full story from you, so I don't have to rely on rumours and obscure notes in files."
"Well, Mrs Thomas, Mandy has had a, how shall I put it, turbulent few months. Perhaps it is better that I tell you the full story, rather than you hearing an exaggerated version later. I would ask that you treat this in confidence, but not because the story is secret. If anything I wish it were more public, to serve as a warning, and to shame those responsible, but Mandy has been through a lot, and I don't want it dredged up again," I said.
"Rest assured that I shall not pass this information on to anyone else, without first seeking your permission. Please continue," Mrs Thomas responded.
I paused, gathering my thoughts to work out how to phrase this, "Coming up on two months ago, my sister underwent MORFS, and became the girl she is today. Now our family is very anti-MORFS, and we lived in Little Greenvale, a community that is pretty much founded on hatred of MORFS survivors. So it was obvious things were going to be tough for her, especially since she was so clearly altered into a hybrid. However, our parents took things worse than I suspected. You may have noticed that Mandy doesn't use her left hand much, generally keeping it in a pocket or otherwise out of sight. This is because our father, after finding out she had changed, tried to kill her with a shotgun. He failed to kill her, but managed to shoot off most of her hand."
Her eyes went wide at that and she tried to say something. I pressed on, wanting to get the whole story out in one go.
"I was able to knock our father down before he could take a second shot, and Mandy ran for her life. Since most of the town was owned by those who would happily see her strung up, she understandably just continued running, ending up on the streets. She hasn't told me the full story of what happened after that, but I don't think it was pleasant. The few events she did recount were the stuff of nightmares. She made her way here to Wilynsford, was eventually rescued by her friend Dorothy, and then taken in by Dorothy's mother Joyce. They gave her a safe place to stay."
"Thank goodness she managed to find someone to help her and keep her safe."
"Well, unfortunately, that wasn't the end of things. I eventually made contact with Mandy again. I was relieved beyond words that she was safe. We decided to meet, but our family used this to find her. Both Mandy and I were abducted, and they tried to burn her at the stake."
"My word! Thank goodness they were stopped, I can't imagine it that poor girl burnt alive."
"Well they did try, but Mandy is a fire elemental so luckily she doesn't burn."
"That's quite a tale. I can understand now some of what you and Mandy have been through. It also explains a lot of Mandy's obvious discomfort around other people."
"She was quite shy before, and this has only made that worse."
“One thing occurs to me, will she need special care for her missing hand?”
“Well as it happens by a lucky turn of fate, MORFS gave Mandy the ability to regenerate her hand, and it is almost fully healed now. She still has some difficulty gripping things with it, but in time she should regain full dexterity.”
"That is good news. Well, happily, it would appear the runaway stories I had been told are wildly inaccurate. I will be honest with you; despite my best efforts, there are still elements at this school that bully those who have been changed by MORFS. Mandy's obvious differences will make her a target. I'm sure her friend Dorothy will try to protect her for the most part, but she won't be there all the time."
"She is a lot tougher than she looks, and she has some very good ways of hiding."
"Well, in some ways, that's one of my concerns. Miss Newman is obviously a force to be reckoned with, and she's thick-skinned enough to take any verbal abuse. Whereas Mandy is a more of a target; though she is quite tall, she carries herself in a manner that makes her look smaller. She doesn't appear to be much of a threat, so they may be more likely to pick on her. We had an incident like this a few months ago, when a newly changed student was bullied, and fought back. With bad results for all concerned. I just don't want a repeat of that incident."
"I suspect that in any sort of fight. Mandy will run and hide. She isn't really the sort for physical confrontation, even though she can handle it. I will make your concerns clear to her, though."
"I hope we won't have any problems, but I thought it prudent to mention it."
After this, we were into forms to fill out, and contact details, et cetera. I was then taken round the school while Mandy finished off her tests. It seemed extremely busy and modern, compared to the school in Little Greenvale. I hoped Mandy would cope all right with so many people here day in and day out. At least she had some friends here to help her find her way.
Soon it was time to see if Mandy was done, and I was taken over to the school library. Mandy looked a little anxious; I assumed it was because of the tests, something she had always hated, but the librarian mentioned that there had been some sort of altercation outside earlier that had disturbed her. She was very subdued on the walk back to Mrs Thomas's office, and wouldn't be drawn on what was wrong, answering all questions in as few words as possible.
We returned to the office, and Mrs Thomas worked out Mandy's scores. She had done reasonably well, and, though not genius level, was in the top sets for most subjects. This was something of a surprise, as she had always been mediocre to poor at schoolwork in the past. I wondered if it was just the change in location and/or teaching method that had inspired better performance out of her. Mrs Thomas issued us with timetables and maps and so forth, so Mandy could find her way when she returned tomorrow for her first full day. Mrs Thomas wished us both well, and Mandy good luck on her first day tomorrow.
We left the school soon after, and it was just about coming up for lunch time. As we walked back to our small flat I tried to find out what had upset Mandy so, eventually after much cajoling I managed to get an answer out of her that wasn't “nothing.”
“There were some boys beating up another boy, a MORFS survivor like me. The way they were treating him reminded me of the time I was attacked by that group of men when I first got here,” she said quietly. “When they saw me watching they threw stones at me. I hid under the desk.”
By now there were tears brimming in her eyes. I put my arm around her, I had hoped this new school would be a chance to put her past completely behind her, and start afresh. Though that might still be the case, I could see that she would still have some tough times ahead of her.
We walked home, and then we made some soup for lunch, one of the few things I could cook. It was surprising how little I knew about how to survive in the real world. I had always lived at home, and rarely had to fend for myself. For someone who had been basically raised to be the good little house wife, I knew surprisingly little about how to do household chores. We had always had others to do such things for us, so having to cook and clean and so forth, was all as new to me as it was to Mandy.
I had been very proud of the way she had jumped in and made the best of things, keen to help me out, and do more than her fair share of the housework. I suspected she felt a bit guilty about me having to care for her, and as a result not being able to go to university. I wished she wouldn't, I would have given up much more than that for her.
After lunch I got ready for work. I was working part time in a shop helping out with evenings and weekends. It wasn't wonderful work but it paid the bills, so that was all that mattered. Mandy asked if it was alright if she went round to D's house when she got home from school. I cautioned her to be back in time for dinner, then gave her a goodbye kiss and set off.
After my sister left for work, I was still a little perturbed. It wasn't just the anxiety from the stone-throwing incident. That had sparked something in my mind, some idea that I couldn't put my finger on. In the meantime I did what little washing up there was to do in the flat’s small kitchen, tidied up a bit, and then sat down on the sofa-bed to think.
I tried to work back through the events of the day to put together what had sparked this idea, and maybe work out what it was my subconscious was bugging me about.
I had seen the fight, and it had sparked memories of my tussle with the group of men. Then there came the stones, and I hid under the desk. I had been thinking how if only I could be normal looking, I wouldn't have the problems I had. But there was no way I could hide my face. I might possibly get away with wearing gloves all the time but my scaly face and odd eyes would mark me out as someone who had undergone MORFS. I had tried using make-up to hide the scales a few times; it didn't really work, since they were too different to the texture of skin. Even if I could cover the colour, the pattern would still show through. Maybe a mask would work, but what sort of mask could I wear that wouldn't be obvious?
I was getting nowhere. I decided to have a cup of tea to try and relax a bit, and see if that would help the idea simmering in my brain become clearer. I was just putting the kettle on and getting out the tea bags, when I realised what I had been thinking. I couldn't wear a mask, but I could project one with my illusion abilities. It wouldn't need to be that complex, as long as it made my face and hands look “skin-like.” If it worked, I would look like a normal girl, and hopefully wouldn't get too much flak from the anti MORFS crowd.
I left the tea and rushed into the flat’s bathroom, where there was a mirror. I focused on creating a mask over the sides of my face. Soon, I had formed two patches of invisibleness on the sides of my face and neck. The invisibility was the default option for my power. It was a bit odd looking, but I was moving in the right direction. I focused and tried to make the patches a sort of skin tone, but it still looked a little fake. After some experimentation, and tweaking, I had covered the patches on the side of my face and neck with a realistic-looking skin pattern. I tried turning and moving my head to check if it was consistent from any angle. It looked pretty good. I then tried speaking, and the 'skin' bent in slightly exaggerated ways, that made it look like the skin on my face was stretching too much. After some adjustment, I had corrected that. I could now speak, without giving away my secret.
I then went to work on my hands. My damaged left hand was a bit of a problem. It was nearly healed, now just slightly smaller than my right hand, still regenerating. I decided to leave it as is; if anyone mentioned it, I could say it had always been that way or make some reference to a childhood injury, which was only partly a lie. After twenty minutes or so of tweaking, I had some convincing skin gloves to hide my hands. I now wondered whether I should do something about my eyes. It would be the most complex part of the illusion, as I couldn't just hide them under a flat layer. I would have to match my eye’s motion and eyelid movements. Blinking wasn't so much of a problem, since I didn't tend to do that anymore, relying instead on my nictitating membranes. Still, I might have to fake it now and then, and I would definitely have to cover up the membranes. They just scream out freak if anyone saw them. I would have to see out, but that seemed to be a property of my illusions’ one-way light transmission, as Sarah put it.
It took another hour to work out the eyes to my satisfaction, but at the end of it a blue eyed normal looking girl stared back at me from the mirror.
It was a bit startling. I was only just getting used to my standard reflection; now, the subtle alteration of skin where there were scales, and blue eyes made me look surprisingly different. As I watched the blue eyed girl in the mirror, I realised I would need an even more complete camouflage for any instance where I had to get undressed around other girls. Since my timetable said PE was not till Thursday, I had a few days to get that ready.
I worked hard to memorise the illusion I was generating. I seemed to be able to imprint a pattern on my field, and then somehow store it for later use. Anna said this was some sort of aspect of the way I generated images. The bit of my brain that consciously controlled my abilities could store patterns, if I worked at memorising them. It was a bit like training something to perform a certain action; you repeatedly trained the action till you could do it without thinking. The more I used a certain pattern, the easier it became to retrieve it, and conversely the less I used something the quicker it would fade, till I would have to almost start from scratch to generate it.
This was, by far, the most complex pattern I had tried to memorise, so I spent extra time concentrating on it, then switching it off, and back on again, in quick succession. Soon I could turn on blue-eyed Mandy with a few seconds of concentration.
I went back into the kitchen and reboiled the kettle to make some tea to celebrate my success, pleased as punch at my own cleverness. I switched off my cover for a bit, just for rest. The act of maintaining the illusion, as well as memorising such a complex illusion, had really worn me out. I needed some time as standard Mandy to recover and maybe a bite to eat. I had a rejuvenating cup of tea, a sandwich or two, and read a bit.
Soon, class dismissal was coming up. I decided to head over to D's house. She likely wouldn't be there yet, but it was a nice day, and Joyce would probably be in. I decided to try my new face and hands. As I headed out the door, I paused and brought out blue-eyed Mandy. I locked the door behind me, and headed out in to the sunshine.
It was a delightfully crisp day, with a clear blue sky, nary a cloud in sight. The sun was low in the sky; it was just about half past three, so it wasn't yet setting, I probably had a few hours till it got dark. Living in a big town was quite different from the village I grew up in. Here there were street lights all along the route I took, back in Little Greenvale while the centre had lighting, the country roads that led to our house were pitch black after dark. I remembered once staying late at school for some reason, probably a detention due to my improper attitude, and then getting lost on the way back. The roads looked so different at night. I realised that here there were other dangers at night, besides getting lost out in the dark, which a young girl had to be careful of.
When I had been out before, I only got the occasional hostile look, since this neighbourhood was relatively tolerant of MORFS survivors. With my disguise on, I found I got more smiles and nods of greeting from the passers-by who wished me a good afternoon. I felt a strange sense of confidence behind my new mask. People just saw me as normal. On the way past a group of young lads I even got a wolf whistle, which both made me supremely embarrassed, and strangely happy. I walked with a spring in my step, my posture much more open and confident than normal.
I made good time going over to D's house, and was there in a little over 20 minutes. I knocked on the door to see if Joyce was home, but it was still a bit early for D to be back from school.
A few moments latter Joyce answered the door, “Hello Joyce, I came over to see Dorothy,” I said.
Joyce looked at me a little strangely, replying, “She's not back from school yet, I'm afraid. Do I know you, dear? You look awfully familiar.”
I realised I was still wearing my blue-eyed Mandy mask. I switched it off and answered, “Sorry. I forgot I was still wearing my mask.”
Joyce jumped back, a bit surprised by my sudden change, then smiled realising who I was, “Oh, of course it's you, Amanda.”
“I was trying to make myself look a bit more normal,” I said, a little sheepishly.
“That's very ingenious, of you to disguise yourself like that. I sometimes wish I could do the same. Come in dear. We'll have a cup of tea while we wait for Dorothy, and you can tell me all about what you have been up to,” Joyce said.
We wandered in to the kitchen, and Joyce put the kettle on. I told her all about how things had been going, about the new flat, about what it was like living with Gwen now it was just the two of us, and all about my first day at school.
She told me about her latest work, translating some obscure text.
I liked talking to Joyce, she was so kind to me and always seemed interested in what I had to say. I had been a little intimidated by her at first. Her appearance was quite fearsome, but she was such a lovely person underneath. She always treated me as an equal, more like a friend than just a kid. It was nothing like how my parents and most adults I had encountered (at least the ones I had met before my change) had treated me. I always seemed to be treated as an annoyance, or someone to be ignored, or talked down to as just a child who had nothing of value to say.
Joyce always listened to me and gave me advice as well as asking my opinion on things. It made me feel good to have someone ask me what I thought, rather than just tell me what I should be thinking.
We chatted away quite happily for a good half an hour till D got home. I heard the door slam, then D called out, "Mum I'm home!"
"In the kitchen Dear," Joyce replied. "Amanda is here to visit."
D walked in and joined us sat at the table, "Hi, Tish, how did the testing go?" she asked.
"OK I think, I was put in the top sets for most things. The tests were a lot easier than the ones we used to get at my old school," I replied.
"This is the first school stuff you've done since you changed right. Maybe you got smarter," D said.
"I don't think so. I don't feel any smarter than before," I said.
"Perhaps your previous school was not providing you an environment that allowed you to effectively use your mind. It does sound, from your description, that a large element for success was possessing a specific attitude, with little emphasis on academic prowess," Joyce said.
"Maybe you are right, I always thought I did badly at school because I wasn't very bright, but maybe it was more down to my lack of religious zeal," I pondered.
"Well that's a good thing you weren't brainwashed like the others," D said.
"Maybe, though I wasn't much beyond it. At the time, I was always afraid of hybrids, believing they were the monsters from fairy tales. I just didn't know any better. I still catch myself flinching sometimes when I see a hybrid I don't know. I guess old habits die hard," I said thoughtfully.
"It's not that surprising, you have years of conditioning to overcome," said Joyce.
We chatted some more, then me and D watched some TV, a strange show about a MORFS girl with purple hair was on. Soon it was time to head home for tea. I said my goodbyes, arranging to meet D for the walk to school tomorrow, and left.
When I got home, Tish was over, having a chat with Mum. It was really great to see her. I know both Mum and I missed having her and her sister around since they moved out. It had been really nice to have someone who had become such a good friend living with us, and her sister was really nice too. It had been great with the four of us together. When it was just Mum and I it could be a bit lonely. I loved my Mum with all my heart, but she could be very closed off sometimes.
Having Tish and Gwen about had been good, not only for me, but for Mum as well. Mum had taken to Tish immediately, probably seeing a lot of herself in her. She had gone out of her way to help Tish out, and make her feel at home. They got on like a house on fire, with Mum treating Tish like one of the family, which was great. I had always wanted a sister. I also noticed that when Gwen came to stay with us, she and Mum seemed to get on well. Gwen was just a touch older than me and Tish and I think she brought Mum some much-missed adult company.
It was a very sad day when they moved out. I know Mum would have liked them to stay, but I understood Gwen’s reasons for leaving. Still, it was a sad few days after they were gone, and the fact that they were extremely busy and couldn't visit was a double blow to both Mum and I. Seeing Tish over, telling Mum all about what she'd been up to was great. I'm sure it lifted Mums spirits a bit.
For myself, I was glad Tish was finally starting at my school, I would get to see her nearly every day.
We chatted about this and that, watched some TV then it got time and Tish had to go. After she left to get home in time for dinner, we made a start on it ourselves. I helped out by chopping stuff up.
I could tell something was on Mums mind, she was distracted and kept forgetting things. She was always like this when something was disturbing her, but she wasn't letting me know what it was. She didn't like to bother other people with her problems, and sometimes she would forget I didn't mind helping her out. I decided to give her a little prod, see if she would let me know what was bothering her.
“What's up Mum?” I said.
Mum frowned a bit then said, "I'm a little worried about Amanda, she has become very nervous of going back to school. She told me some children threw stones at her."
"What! Who?" I asked a little angry.
"She didn't know, they were attacking some boy, and saw her at the window. She hid under a desk till they went away."
"Probably Flint's lot, they can be a bit nasty."
"Well it has made her decide she is better off hiding herself, and though it is very ingenious, I can't help but think she is risking greater trouble later."
"Hmm, she planning on wearing make-up, and gloves to school then?"
"Something like that."
"Well if she hides herself some how won't she get on better?"
"Maybe, I know I'm hardly one to talk, but hiding away doesn't help things. I worry she will swap one fear for another. Look out for her, won't you dear."
"I will Mum."
We finished making dinner and after eating, I made a start on my home work. I wondered what Tish was going to try and do to hide herself. I couldn't think of a way that would be effective. I could understand why she wanted to hide, she had been through a lot, and the prospect of getting beaten up at school was not pleasant. I would have to be ultra focused and try to help my friend through this.
Tomorrow would be her first day at school and I wanted to make sure she enjoyed it, after all what else were best mates for. If it came to it, I would knock the stuffing out of every single one of those anti MORFS tossers rather than let them upset her.
To Be Continued...
The entire MORFS Universe can be found at http://morfs.nowhere2go.org/