Chapter Ten - Cat Fight
She is entering their world, the geek’s world. It’s an alien, scary place and smells funny. Book-ish. ‘Come to the library, free period after lunch,’ Gabe said. Well, I’m here. She stands at the entrance, an incongruous trespasser in this hallowed place. In five years of high school she has never set foot inside The Oppenheimer Library. She searches the circular room and her eyes are drawn upwards, to its soaring white roof and wooden beams crisscrossed in an orderly pattern. There’s a gallery up there, with study tables watched over by rows and rows of books. Computer terminals and large racks of magazines huddle in clumps. She was expecting a digital library. It smells old and... papery. Where is he?
She feels eyes upon her and her gaze travels. Gabe is watching her from the far corner of the gallery, leaning on the railing. He pulls away and walks to a large table where two more guys are seated. She can see Bird’s yellow T shirt from here. This is where everything changes. She is entering a foreign world. Charlotte takes the wooden stairs, winding upward like a path to a forest canopy. Why am I nervous? Is it because I read his journal?
She approaches the table. Beefy Geek gets up, like a gentleman from a Victorian film and waits for her to take the vacant seat, next to Gabe. Bird, dressed entirely in yellow, is tapping at a small screen, seemingly absorbed.
“Hey,” says Gabe. Charlotte offers him a nervous half smile. Shifts her weight awkwardly, putting off the moment where she sits down and becomes part of this strange group. Gabe points at his companions.
“That’s Gonzo and Bird.” They nod, both wearing monochromatic T shirts with symbols or writing. Only Gabe’s is plain red, with white piping. It’s some sort of T shirt club! Bird’s has ‘Terraformers Anon’ on it. He flicks a glance her way then goes back to pecking his screen. Gonzo is chunky-built with a benign, friendly face, dark scraggly hair, black rimmed glasses and pimples. His black T shirt is emblazoned with huge red letters, ‘ATARI’ and a stylised mountain. Charlotte takes a shallow breath. Here goes.
“Hi,” she says, flailing a hand in the air. She sits down, fumbles inside her bag for something to do. There’s nothing useful in it. Silence engulfs them all. Gonzo speaks first.
“We know about your dad’s work. We’ve been fans for years.” His nasal voice is surprisingly deep. He pushes his glasses up his nose.
Charlotte blinks, taken aback.
“Yeah, a subversive genius,” adds Bird in small, quiet voice, without looking up from his screen.
“He’s got more degrees than a thermometer,” grins Gonzo. “I can hardly believe I’m actually conversing with a real, live clone!” He continues, oblivious to Charlotte’s cringing. She swallows. Cloning is illegal. My very existence is illegal! How did they find out - hack into Dad’s computer? She’s starting to breathe too quickly, feeling faint. Vomit is rising in her throat. She covers her mouth and looks down, letting her hair hide her face.
“Guys, cool it,” says Gabe. “Charlotte is having a hard time accepting this, ok? Let’s give her a minute.” They mumble ‘Ok.’ She looks across at Gabe. There’s warmth in his eyes. Protectiveness. But why?
“Bet you never thought you’d be in the library with a bunch of freaks,” says Gonzo, grinning. “Imagine it, the hottest girl in school sitting with us!” He takes out a tissue and blows his nose loudly. “We’ve always been freaks,” he says, shrugging. “You get used to it. That’s why we stick together.”
“It hurts, sometimes. Being weird,” says Bird quietly. A silence follows as all eyes turn to the slight figure hunched over his ipad.
“It does,” agrees Gabe, his mouth twisting itself, his eyes looking away. Charlotte takes in his lean body and his gorgeous hair. She frowns. He’s too good looking to seriously be considered a geek. Not like Bird, with his frail tiny body and quick darting eyes. Or the bespectacled Gonzo. No, Gabe doesn’t quite fit the ‘Freak Squad.’ In the short time she’s been noticing Gabe, she’s never seen anyone bully him. Not even Corey, who enjoys beating up geeks and nerds. It’s like Gabe has this confidence around him that creates a barrier. The boys just don’t mess with him. He’s not socially awkward or shy, doesn’t have strange, compulsive interests in kids’ stuff, like cartoons and superheroes, doesn’t always wear T shirts with phrases or symbols on them. He is obviously intelligent, taking Chemistry and Physics, but... He could easily fit in with the popular crowd. Realising this gives Charlotte some comfort. She’s not the only one with secrets.
“So, why am I here?” she says.
Gabe’s calm, emerald eyes turn to her. “We think we figured out how you created that space-time bubble.” Charlotte chews her lip. Do I really want to know how I did that?
“And we’ve got some questions for you,” says Gonzo earnestly, his fingers hovering over his laptop.
“Ok,” she says reluctantly.
“When did you first start to notice you were different?” Gonzo asks.
“How do you mean, ‘different’?”
Gonzo pushes up his glasses. “I mean, when something out of the ordinary happened.”
Charlotte can feel the spot on her face tingling. I can’t tell them about my zombie face! What if it comes back? What if it spreads? Will the rest of my body slowly disintegrate? Am I going to die, again?
“Charlotte, are you ok?” Gabe’s warm hand is on her shoulder. His cologne, warm and spicy, draws her out of the hole of despair. “How about we just tell you what we’ve figured out and leave the questions for another time?”
She nods. Why are they so concerned about me anyway?
“The car incident, for instance,” continues Gonzo. “We think you created a space-time bubble around yourself and the car. You effectively stretched time, which sped you up, which made it look like everyone else was slowing down.”
“But how could I do that?” She glares at them. “It’s physically impossible.”
Gonzo shakes his head, but his eyes are alight. “You’re unique. In all the world. Your clone body is genetically identical to the original, but, as with all life, genetic mutations can occur.”
“Great. So I’m a mutant.” She folds her arms.
“All we need now is Dr X,” says Gonzo. The boys all grin.
“Never mind,” says Gabe. Charlotte takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, looking at each of them.
“I still don’t understand what a clone body has to do with manipulating space-time.”
Gonzo shrugs. “Neither do we, but isn’t it awesome?” Charlotte chews her lip.
“I assume,” says Gabe, “that your father accelerated your growth so that your body would mature to the same age?”
“Yes. Apparently.” It’s like they’re talking about someone else in a detached, scientific analysis not the person she sees in the mirror every day, the body she looks down at as she’s getting dressed.
“So, how did you become... you?” Asks Gonzo, his face thoughtful.
“My father says he transferred my consciousness just before I... died.”
“Oh.” Bird types frantically, his pointed little face pale.
Gonzo whistles softly. “This makes your dad the most radical transitionalist. He’s actually made post-human a reality! We’re not talking cybernetics here, copying a conscious mind from a brain to a non-biological substrate by scanning and mapping a biological brain in detail, then copying it to an android. We’re talking the evolution of humankind.”
Bird’s eyes are wide with fear. “Fukuyama was right,” he whispers.
“This is way beyond Nietzsche’s self-actualisation,” Gonzo adds. “The self is transferrable.”
“What are you talking about?” Charlotte looks at each in turn. Gabe tries to explain.
“Francis Fukuyama argued that since biotechnology allows humans to control their own evolution, it may allow humans to alter human nature, thereby putting liberal democracy at risk. To him, post-humanity isn’t what you’d call a desirable goal. It’s dangerous for humankind.”
“It could end in radical inequality,” adds Gonzo. “The end of the human species as we know it. Modified to hell.”
“Only in the wrong hands,” Gabe hurriedly assures her. Charlotte holds her head.
“I don’t understand any of this!”
“Charlotte, it’s just mind blowing, to be here, with you!” Gonzo says brightly. “You’re a one-off.”
“But I don’t want to be a one-off! Don’t you get it? I just want my old life back! I don’t want to be some fricken experiment!” Her voice has risen but she ploughs on. “I want to be plain Charlotte Emily Campbell. Fashion designer. You’re freaking me out with all this cyber talk and transhuman crap!”
There’s silence. They all stare at Charlotte.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” she whispers. “It’s a nightmare. It’s hell. Every day. I can’t control any of it!” She looks at Gabe and her voice rises passionately. “And don’t tell me my life can never go back to what it was. I KNOW, all right?”
“SH!” hisses someone from below. Someone else coughs loudly. Charlotte swallows. She has to tell someone. It may as well be these guys. Taking a few seconds to gather her strength, she continues.
“My face... it’s deteriorating. There’s a dead spot.”
“Your face is deteriorating?” Gonzo is puzzled.
“Yes. My father gave me a transfusion of his blood, which helped to heal this spot on my face, but it’s tingling again.” She sniffs, her lips tremble, tears held barely in check. “It’s coming back.”
“This isn’t good,” says Bird in his little voice. “Degradation. This isn’t good.” Gabe’s face is white, his lips parted. He has no words of comfort to offer her. Charlotte feels the grip of Death around her wrist, pulling her inexorably towards a black hole in the ground.
It’s Maths class, the last of the day. Sitting, in ‘second seat’ next to Abbi has been excruciating. The girl’s smug smile has not left her face the entire lesson. Charlotte has to sort Abbi out. The bell goes and everyone scrambles for the door. But when Abbi stands, an area opens up around her. She breezes into the hall, Tessa and Charlotte trailing behind. Girls are snickering.
“Ha! Serves her right! She was always a bitch to me.”
“I wanna see a cat fight!”
Charlotte feels the heat in her face. Before she realises what’s happening, her hand has reached out and grabbed Abbi’s arm. Abbi swings round, eyebrows arched in a look of hatred.
“I want a word with you,” Charlotte says in a low voice. Abbi flicks her platinum hair off her shoulder.
“I’m busy.” She looks down at Charlotte’s hand with scorn.
“Now,” says Charlotte. With a tilt of her head she indicates an empty classroom next door. Students are flowing around them, watching - a dog pack circling the two top bitches.
“Let go Charlotte or...” Abbi snarls, shaking free.
“Or what? You’ll start a rumour that I have facial cancer?” Charlotte’s voice is shrill. Everyone is staring at them, shifting to get a better look. “Get lost!” Charlotte screams at them. Girls snort and break into shrieking laughter. Boys jostle each other.
“Cat fight! Cat fight!” They chant.
Abbi’s eyes glint with malice. “Go on, then,” she says, lifting her chin. “Give it your best shot.”
“I’m not going to hit you,” Charlotte says. “Even though that would be very satis….”
Abbi strikes, yanking a handful of hair while the other hand curls into a fist and smashes into Charlotte’s face. Charlotte gasps, falling backwards struggling to get a hold of Abbi. The hall erupts with cheering. Abbi kicks out and Charlotte crumples, clutching her leg, too shocked to cry. Abbi kicks her again and again. Charlotte tries to stand up but Abbi is too strong. She lunges for Abbi’s ankles and the girl crashes to the floor, swearing obscenities. The crowd are loving it. Tessa is shrieking with horror. Charlotte grabs a handful of Abbi’s hair, lifts her head right back, thinking only of smashing the girl’s face into the concrete floor. The righteous rage feels so good. Abbi can only gasp, her eyes blackened with run mascara, her fingers clawing ineffectively at Charlotte.
Suddenly, strong hands lift Charlotte high in the air by her armpits. She struggles to punch Abbi, who is wiping her bloodied nose with her forearm.
“Get off me!” Charlotte screeches, trying to break free. But the hands hold her fast, pinning her arms to her sides as her assailant marches her up the hall. The crowd parts to let them pass. Is it the Principal? Why doesn’t he say anything? Some boys look afraid, others drop their gaze. The girls stare open mouthed. Charlotte can feel her captor’s breath on her neck as she continues to struggle. There’s a deep scar on his tanned, left forearm. His aftershave smells familiar.
“Let me GO!” she shrieks.
“Keep walking,” he says, as they continue past the Principal’s office. She knows that voice.
“YOU! Get your hands off me! I was winning that fight!”
“No you weren’t,” says Gabe calmly. You were just humiliating yourself further.” They pass through the front doors, down the steps and to the school parking lot. Charlotte realises she’s lost both her shoes. Finally, Gabe releases her. She swings to face him and lands a lucky punch on his jaw. He doesn’t even flinch. But the pain in Charlotte’s hand is blinding. She cradles it, moaning. He hands over her shoes. She snatches them, furious.
“When I need rescuing, I’ll ask, ok? Until then BUTT OUT!” She marches off to her car, trying not to limp, despite the agony in her leg. Panting, she struggles into her car and slumps, sobbing. She’s lost the fight, lost her position, lost her friends, lost it all.