Chapter Sixteen - GSA
Charlotte is slumped in a comfy chair in the corner, dressed in her own track pants and hoodie, sunlight streaming through the dormer window beside her. Bird is seated at the desk, peering through an enormous magnifying glass, painting a plastic miniature warrior. Tiny pots of paint and paintbrushes are lined up. Gonzo is battling an online opponent, periodically yelling in frustration or triumph. His hand strays to the huge packet of potato chips sitting nearby. Gabe is lounging near them, quietly strumming his guitar and humming some song. His voice is mellow. On his lap is a notebook and occasionally he pauses to pick up a pencil and add scribbles to it.
But Charlotte can’t see anything in the room that interests her. She sighs and starts picking at her nails.
“You need a hobby,” says Gabe suddenly.
“I have a hobby. It’s shopping.”
He shakes his head. “That’s not a hobby. That’s an illness.”
She gives him a frosty look. Gonzo grunts.
“I love karate. And chickens.”
“Chickens?” Charlotte says. “Why?”
He shrugs. “They’re cool. I grew up on a farm. The chickens were my main responsibility. Did you know there are about 25 billion chickens in the world? And that a chicken can live for up to 18 months after its head has been chopped off?”
“Ugh!” Charlotte grimaces and hides behind her sleeve.
“And they dream like we do, REM sleep and have full colour vision.”
“I collect bus tickets,” says Bird, looking up from his delicate painting. “And barcodes. Bus tickets are rare these days.” He gently strokes a paint brush with a single hair to the helmet of his miniature.
“And Bird can play any instrument. Even if he’s never picked it up before. Like a virtuoso,” says Gonzo matter-of-factly. Charlotte tries to picture Bird standing on a huge stage dressed in a yellow tuxedo with a violin under his chin, playing furiously. Hm. Nah.
’What about you?” Charlotte asks, turning to Gabe.
“Music,” he says, scribbling with his pencil, then frowning, then scrubbing it out and writing something else.
“Music…” Charlotte says.
“Listening to it, writing it, playing it.” He looks at her as if she’s asking something really dumb. “Here.” Gabe leans over picks up a magazine and tosses it to her.
“Heroes of Dreadnes?” She screws up her face. “Really? You read this stuff?”
He shrugs, unapologetic. “Give it a go.”
“You’re determined to turn me into a geek, aren’t you? Before I met you guys I thought ‘fantasy’ was some sort of sexually perverted role-playing thing, not a genre of literature.”
Gabe tips back his head and laughs heartily. Gonzo chuckles. Bird makes a squeaking noise and turns bright red.
“See? We’ve expanded your horizons already.” He goes back to his guitar.
Charlotte flicks through the magazine not really seeing anything, until her eyes are caught by a picture of a superhero pushing back five bad guys with one outstretched hand, creating a wall of light. She pauses, chewing her lip and thinks about the other day, when she used her power to humiliate Abbi. An unfamiliar face flashes across her mind. A woman who looks like a receptionist with drawn down brows and glinting eyes. And Charlotte remembers.
“Hey, are you all right?” Gabe says worriedly.
“I just remembered something.”
“About what happened?”
“Yeah.” Charlotte frowns, trying to summon the memory. “I was parked outside your house. Don’t really remember why. And this woman comes walking up the street. I was expecting her to go into the university but she walked right up to my car and knocked on the window. I was feeling a bit dizzy and I don’t know how it happened but she was suddenly sitting in my car. And she wouldn’t get out.”
“Who was she? Did she tell you her name?” asks Gonzo, his fingers are poised over his keyboard, ready to google it.
“Ah, erm...” Charlotte squeezes her temples. Stares at the floor. “Anna something. Something beginning with P.”
Gonzo taps. Gabe leans his guitar against a chair.
“Try and remember her last name. Was the second letter a vowel?”
“Obviously!” snaps Charlotte. Just thinking about the woman makes her angry. But why? The room is suddenly very still. All the geeks are looking away. “Sorry,” she offers. “I can’t remember much, but I do remember being shit scared of her.”
“Well, just relax. Maybe it will come back to you. Did she say why she was there?”
“Something... something about a corporation. GSE? GSO? I can’t remember.”
Gonzo gives a soft whistle and begins tapping furiously. He and Bird share a look of concern.
“What?” says Charlotte, feeling a creeping sense of panic.
“Bird, what is it?” asks Gabe.
“The GSA. Genetic Security Alliance,” he says in his tiny voice. His eyes dart around the room.
Gonzo leans back and reads from his screen.
“The Genetic Security Alliance is an international corporation dedicated to preserving genetic purity and to investigating the possibilities of transhuman existence.”
“Oh my God, that’s what you were talking about in the library!” Charlotte blurts. And then she remembers. “Anna Povic! That’s it!”
Gonzo types fast.
“Anna Povic, Russian, born 1985. Former Russian diplomat expelled from the USA for suspected but as yet unproven criminal activities. Has links to the Russian mafia and Chinese triad. A chameleon, Anna Povic has many faces and disguises. She is able to ingratiate herself to almost anyone. Anna Povic is believed to be highly dangerous.”
Charlotte feels sick.
“Can I have a look at that?” Gabe leans forward. Gonzo hands over his laptop. Gabe is quiet for a few minutes, clicking and tapping at the keyboard. The others pretend to be busy. Finally he looks up. “These people are pretty serious criminals, hiding behind the facade of corporate enterprise. If they know about you Charlotte, they won’t stop until they get you.”
Charlotte feels the anger rise inside her.
“But she didn’t get me, I got rid of her! I focussed on expelling her out of my car and that’s exactly what I did,” She says triumphantly. “I remember seeing her body, further up the road. Then I kind of blacked out. Or vomited. Or both.”
“Wow, that means your powers are growing,” says Gonzo, full of admiration. “You can now isolate something outside yourself, with precision and shift its location.” He ruffles his hair. “Charlotte, you need a cool superhero name! And a sexy outfit. Comfortable, stretchy and bulletproof,” he adds, pinching his lower lip thoughtfully.
“Boots,” says Bird quietly, adding tiny red brushstrokes to the miniature warrior in his hand and holding it up to the light. “She’ll need sturdy boots.”
From her corner, Charlotte scowls and folds her arms defensively.
“No. Absolutely not.” She’s staring at the miniature through Bird’s enormous magnifying glass. A teeny tiny warrior, with an enormous, vicious-looking sword and bulging muscles. Its face is covered by a horned helmet. She has a brief vision of herself in armour, then in a metal bikini. Oh, the shame of it! Her life would be over. All those years of careful attention to the smallest detail of her wardrobe, maintaining her position as Fashion Diva. Everyone has looked up to her for fashion advice. She’d be a laughing stock.
“But Charlotte, you’d look so awesome! Like a goddess of war!” Gonzo can’t help himself. Gabe shoots him a warning look.
“I am not strutting around in sparkling spandex and a bustier and boots! Forget it.” She covers her ears. “La, la, la! I can’t hear you.”
“Oh, very mature.” Gabe drawls, his eyebrow raised. The other two are staring at her, the disappointment clear upon their nerdish faces. Bird’s paintbrush is halted in mid-air, the mini warrior snarling in protest. Charlotte sighs. Her head is throbbing.
“You don’t seem to understand. I never wanted this, I didn’t ask for it.” She looks at them all, one by one. “The last thing I want is to stand out and be different! You guys don’t seem to care about being different. In fact, I think you actually like it. I’ve spent my entire life trying to fit in. I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on my wardrobe alone.” She points to the mini warrior. “You love all this superhero stuff. It’s fun to you. You don’t care that people laugh at you. But I do! My reputation is everything to me. And this is my absolute worst frigging nightmare!”
“But Charlotte, it’s your destiny,” says Gonzo kindly, as if that solves everything. “A gift like this has to be destiny. You’re the chosen one, Charlotte.” He seems so earnest. He actually believes it.
Gabe shrugs. “Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe we should just leave it alone.” Gonzo just stares at Gabe.
“This isn’t good,” says Bird in a tight little voice. “She has to be a superhero. You can’t refuse destiny. This isn’t good.” He pulls a single strand of hair out of his scalp and winds it around his index finger. The miniature crouches on the table, battle-ready. Bird plucks another hair and winds it around his finger. The others look on helplessly.
“Easy, Bird. It’s OK.” Gabe’s voice is quiet, like he’s convincing a timid, wild animal to trust him. He takes Bird gently by the shoulders and swivels his chair round. “Look at me. No, not over there. At my eyes. Come on. That’s the rule, remember?”
Bird looks at him grudgingly. Charlotte finds herself watching this scene, entranced. One minute they’re ecstatic she has super powers, now they’re fussing over Bird.
“Charlotte hasn’t accepted it yet, but you’re right. She is a super hero.” He flicks Charlotte a look. She rolls her eyes.
“But you said maybe we were wrong. You said it,” Bird whines, yanking out another strand of hair.
“I know. I didn’t mean it. I was just... frustrated. That’s all.” He drops his arms away from Bird’s tiny frame. Gonzo puffs out his cheeks.
“Sometimes we have to look destiny in the face and shout at it for a while before we accept it.”
“Shout at destiny for a while. Hm.” says Gabe, grinning. He flashes Charlotte a broad perfect smile that makes her blush. “Well, she’s certainly doing some shouting.” As she’s looking at Gabe’s face Charlotte realises he’s not wearing those stupid glasses. And he looks rather hunky. This makes her blush even more. She clears her throat and looks out the window.
“What worries me Charlotte, is how much this took out of you. Do you have any more spots?” Gabe asks.
“I’m guessing you don’t mean pimples.”
He nods gravely.
Charlotte pulls up the sleeve of the hoodie her father brought from home. There’s a new, dark patch on her arm. The patch on her face is darker too, but easily covered up with make-up. “And there’s this one,” she says, pulling up the leg of her track pants. It looks like a bruise, but the edges have that horrifying greyish fragility.
“There must be a way we can help you not to get sick afterwards,” says Gonzo, picking up his laptop.
“It’s a genetic mutation. We don’t know what we’re dealing with,” says Gabe pragmatically.
“There’s only one person who would know,” says Bird, engrossed in his mini warrior once more. “And that’s Professor Campbell.”
“Bird’s right,” agrees Gabe. “We should tell him these latest developments and see what he thinks.”
“You’re all talking about me as if I’m not even in the room! I’ll decide what to do about this ok? It’s my body.”
“Hey, could we see your dad’s lab?” asks Gonzo, his face earnest, like a six year old. “It would be so cool!”
“I guess so.” Charlotte relents. Maybe it would be a good idea to involve the geeks. Four scientific heads had to be better than one. “One condition. You do not tell my father about my powers.”
“You don’t want him to know?” Gabe says, confused.
“I tried telling him about the truck accident, the first time I used them. But he just… Didn’t seem to get it. He was too preoccupied in finding out what is causing the blemishes on my skin.”
“So you don’t want him to know.” Gabe repeats.
“Don’t look at me like that! He’ll only worry.”
“You mean every time you use your power he’ll worry about you more.”
She sticks out her tongue.
“You think you’re so smart Gabriel Murray, but you’re not. My father doesn’t need anything more to worry about. He’s already lost my mother.” They all fall silent, looking away.
“Ok. Deal,” says Gabe, giving her a wry look. “For now.”
Charlotte clamps her jaw and gives him the death stare.
“Would you ask him if we could have a look tonight?” Gonzo says excitedly.
Gabe holds up his hands. “Slow down. It’s up to Charlotte.” They all look at her. She rolls her eyes.
“On that one condition,” she says firmly.
“Ha! I smite thee, thou puerile heathen!” Gonzo shakes his fist at the screen. “Fifty eight points!”
Charlotte shakes her head. One minute they’re intelligent scientists, the next they’re silly boys again.