Chapter 51

"Good afternoon, class," Dean Blaine greeted his students Tuesday morning, entering the already-full classroom with a slightly shorter, far more nervous man in tow. "I'm glad to see all of you could make it to listen to today's guest speaker. Your commitment to learning has been noted."

Nick was staring at the man who had come with Dean Blaine, clearly their guest speaker. He was twitchy, obviously uncomfortable with crowds, and his appearance was slightly unkempt. Nick could only guess what status this man must have to have garnered the podium away from Dean Blaine.

"Now, I'm sure you're all curious to hear from today's speaker, so I'll turn things over to him in just a moment. Before he begins, though, I would like you all to realize that this man has come as a personal favor, and I expect him to be treated with the same respect you would show to me. I'll consider anything less than that as a very personal offense," Dean Blaine spelled out clearly. "With that said, I give you Jacob Stuart."

The shorter man, Jacob, moved from behind Dean Blaine and took the dean's usual spot at the front of the room. He glanced around uncertainly and fiddled with his hands. After a few seconds of fumbling, Jacob took a deep breath and composed himself, then began to speak.

"As your dean said, my name Jacob Stuart. What he didn't mention is that I'm a Powered."

To say a ripple of surprise went through the class would be like saying that fish are somewhat inclined towards water over land, when handed a choice. It was kept in check, though, and it became immediately clear exactly why Dean Blaine had put such emphasis on respecting their speaker.

"Your dean felt that you all would benefit from hearing about things from the perspective of someone who can't control their abilities," Jacob continued, blowing past the ripple of shock because... because, well, he had already been expecting it. "I think he is either an optimist to the point of idiocy or you must be the most open-minded class of Supers in the history of the world. From the looks on your faces, though, I'm sad to say it’s seeming closer to the former than the latter."

Scowls and sneers were pulled up short as some Supers realized they were showing too much on their face. Nick continued a steady leer, not so angry as to draw attention but unhappy enough that anyone who glanced at him wouldn't mistake him as sympathetic to the plight of a Powered.

"My ability is teleportation, and it activates every time I sneeze," Jacob said. "I can't control where I go, or how far away I end from where I started out. I seem to have some natural sense of preservation, though, because I never teleport into an object or five miles up in the air. I'm always safe, just horribly inconvenienced. That's more or less all you need to know about me, so why don't we go ahead and let you ask any questions you might have? I'm sure most of you have never had occasion to talk to a Powered, after all."

"If you accidentally teleport when you sneeze, why don't you just teleport back afterward?" Stella blurted out in typical fashion.

"Because I can't," Jacob replied.

"But you just said you had the ability of teleportation," Stella kept probing.

"Yes, when I sneeze I teleport uncontrollably. And that's the only time I can do it. Unless I'm sneezing I can't teleport any more than I can turn lead in gold," Jacob explained.

"I get that you have the accidental thing," Stella continued. "I'm just asking why you never learned to use your power outside of the trigger so you could do it whenever you wanted."

"Let me ask you something, young lady, what's your power?" Jacob asked in response.

"I turn into steel."

"That sounds like a good one," Jacob complimented her. "But why don't you ever try flying instead?"

"Because that's not my power," Stella said slowly. "I told you, I turn into steel."

"And I told you, I teleport when I sneeze. I don't have the power to teleport at will any more than you have the power to fly. There's a common misconception that Powereds are too lazy or stupid to master our gifts, when the reality is that we just don't have that ability. Trust me, this isn't a lifestyle choice."

A well-manicured hand near the front raised slowly in the air.

"Yes?" Jacob said, gesturing to the girl asking the question.

"Do you hate Supers?" Alice asked. The class reacted visibly, and Nick nearly fell out of his chair. What was that crazy bitch doing, drawing attention to herself in this kind of discussion? They needed to slide by and pray for class to end swiftly.

"I'm sorry, I think I misheard you," Jacob said.

"You didn't," Alice said. "I asked if you hated Supers. Your ability must make having any kind of normal life nearly impossible, yet when you look around there are people with all of the gift and none of the burden being idolized and worshiped by society. If not for a variant in your genetic coding, that might very well have been you. So do you hate us?"

"Of course I do," Jacob told her. "Every Powered hates Supers, and not just for the reasons you listed. While you are elite and special, we're looked at as a type of disabled person. We're considered lesser citizens, a social burden that people have to put up with. Most people think of us as nothing more than the price they pay for having Supers and Heroes. So of course I hate you, but not violently, just achingly. Aching for what might have been. I've got one for you now. Do you hate Powereds?"

"Of course I do," Alice echoed.

"And why is that?"

"Same reason. Because when I look at you, I see what might have been if not for a twist of fate," Alice elaborated.

"Wow," Jacob said. "You're a lot more honest with yourself than most Supers."

"Thank you," Alice accepted gracefully.

Another hand rose a few rows over from Alice, this one male.

"Is there any hope for your kind?" Chad asked without waiting to be called on.

"There's always hope, kid; if you take nothing else from this then please take that," Jacob answered. "No, there's no science, or miracle cure in the works that will make me more like you. No one has even been able to figure what the difference between Supers and Powereds is; as far as modern science can tell, we're genetically identical. So I'm not expecting some breaking news tomorrow announcing that we can become Supers, or even that we can just become human. But I have hope, because if I didn't, then I don't know how I would be able to keep pressing on. And besides, in a world where people can dance on the clouds, it isn't so crazy to hope for the impossible."

Chad accepted this explanation with a silent nod.

"Is it true no one knows what causes Powereds?" a dark-haired boy in the front called out.

"We don't even have a clue. Powereds can be born from Supers, regular humans, or other Powereds. The stats are across the board, and no one combination has been proven more likely," Jacob said.

"How did your parents take it?" Vince asked quietly. Nick made a note to whip up some cyanide punch and kill everyone he shared that damned dorm with. Two of them had called attention to themselves. Two!

"My parents?"

"Yeah. I mean, most parents are overjoyed to have a kid who is a Super. What's it like telling them that you're a Powered?" Vince elaborated.

"If you're able to tell them, then you're one of the lucky few," Jacob said. "Most of us get outed by the powers themselves. I sneezed myself right out of a birthday party when I was a kid. When I couldn't do it again by focusing my secret was pretty much out. As for how they took it... well, I was fortunate. They loved me and tried to be supportive of me. It was hard, though, because every time I came back after I vanished, I could see the disappointment they were hiding. Disappointed that they had almost sired greatness, but instead all they got was me. It's such a thin line between Powered and Super, yet that line may as well be a ravine from how separated we are."

Undoubtedly some students wanted to chime in with how they wished that line was bigger so they wouldn't have to talk to or deal with Powereds anymore. One didn't qualify for the HCP by being stupid, though, even if they could make it in despite ignorance. Dean Blaine had laid it clearly on the table before the talk began. This was constructive questions only: anything else would piss off the man who could boot them from the program with nothing more than a word.

"We won't be able to go on much longer," Dean Blaine interrupted from his seat. "Mr. Stuart has an engagement to which I have agreed to accompany him in fulfillment of our bargain. Let's take one more question and then you will be dismissed early."

Several hands went up this time, some last minute flurries of determination for the dean to see their participation and up the grade, others genuine probes of curiosity. Jacob scanned the crowd and selected one hand a few rows up.

"Okay, you in the sunglasses," Jacob announced, pointing up at Nick.

"Do you have any pepper?" Nick asked.

"Pepper?"

"Or a feather, or a thin line of cloth. Really anything along those lines," Nick said, half of him cursing himself for being the third Melbrook member to ask a question and half trusting in himself and his gambit.

Ever so slowly a smile crept across Jacob's face. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a long case. He popped it open and delicately removed a slender white feather. It was sturdy as well as slim and it looked very well cared for.

"Smart kid," Jacob commented.

"What the hell? How did he know you had a feather?" Stella blurted out.

"Because he's putting himself in my shoes," Jacob replied. "He's wondering, if he were in my situation, how would he use it to his advantage? And he came to the same conclusion as I did. You see, teleporting randomly can still be pretty useful for snapping yourself out of dangerous situations, and just because I can't make myself teleport doesn't mean I can't make myself sneeze."

"Crafty," Stella complimented.

"Dangerous," Nick corrected. "It's easy to get caught up in the pity party of what it must be like to be a Powered, but we're idiots if we forget that they aren't always helpless. Sometimes a power that can't be controlled is even more hazardous to fight than one that can be."

"Mr. Campbell," Dean Blaine cautioned, raising his voice in warning.

"No, it's okay," Jacob said. "The boy is right. You are a fool if you forget that the key word of Powered is power. We have it, even if it isn't reigned in, and some of us have stretched our resourcefulness to its limit for even a shred more of control. If you become Heroes you'll have to deal with Powereds sometimes. Never underestimate them or make assumptions. Always be ready to ask yourself, if you had their condition, how would you try to utilize it? Sometimes answering that question will be the difference between winning and losing."

"On that note, I’d like to hear a round of applause to thank our guest for taking time out of his day to speak with us," Dean Blaine said. There was a lukewarm sound of clapping that faded away quickly.

"You can take your time in going to gym," Dean Blaine said as the last lone clapper gave up the fight. "The coaches won't be expecting you until your regular time. I thought you might like to take these extra minutes and talk amongst yourselves about what we covered today. That is your choice, though; just be at gym when the hour arrives." With that, he and Jacob exited the room, and after a minute or two of waiting to make sure he wouldn't come back, the rest of the class began flowing toward the door as well.

Nick gathered up his own things and sighed inwardly. He'd managed to diffuse a lot of the sympathy the class had been building toward Jacob, and in doing so had marked himself as someone with no compassion for Powereds. It was a bit paranoid, admittedly, to worry that someone would make such a leap from Melbrook students being sympathetic toward Powereds to suspecting they had once been Powereds themselves, but Nick often thought of paranoia as nothing more than extreme preparedness. He had done what he had to do, even if it was built on a very unlikely fear. Unlikely was something you learned to account for when you grew up with bipolar luck, though, so Nick reaffirmed that it was necessary to shift the pity toward Jacob partially into suspicion and fear.

Knowing all that, he still felt a sense of guilt rising in his stomach. That, at least, he knew exactly how to deal with though.