Chapter 10 – You live, you learn The next morning, a loud banging noise woke me up.

It reminded me of a prison movie, with the inmates banging cups and plates on the bars. “Yo, Steve? You still in that thing? Your cake timer binged hours ago. Get up, it’s noon.” The sound was Ryan banging on the walls of the reactor with a coffee mug. I yelled something incomprehensible to anyone, including myself, but it was enough to make him stop. As I shook out the cobwebs, I realized that I’d been sleeping for hours inside the reactor. Perhaps I could sleep inside it now. Still, I preferred my bed. Ryan seemed to understand my growl. “Cool, see you in a bit. Kevin and Rachel are in the back.” What? Kevin was here all the time, but Rachel? Maybe this was college all over again. Once I heard Ryan exit out the back, I stumbled out of the reactor, checked over my skin, and got dressed for the day. Or afternoon. I noticed my stomach when I exited the house into the backyard. That’s when I saw the spread – steaks, carne asada, baby back ribs, kielbasa sausage, all sitting next to my barbeque. I’m not sure if it was seeing the food or something, but I knew I wanted food. “Hey, Ry, when are you firing that up?” “Have a seat first.” I took a seat near the food. I think I cared a lot more about eating than the fact that this was the first hangout with the four of us – me, Ryan, Rachel, and Kevin. I did notice the gleam in Ryan’s eye. This was the same look he had when he told me about his superhero plan.

Ryan stood, cleared his throat, and began. “Alright, listen up. Me and Rachel have been doing a bunch of experiments, and we’re convinced that magic isn’t quite the way it’s portrayed on the news. They’re saying how some of us have magic abilities. We’re saying that you know how to use magic.” “What the hell are you talking about?” I said. Yeah, I know, stupid. But this was the first time I’d heard anything like this, and I was sleepy and hungry. “Let’s take you, Steve. You can alter the mass of objects without changing their fundamental structure. If this was WoW, you’d also be able to crush enemies by making them heavier or something, and have a lot of gravity related powers. But no, you can talk to animals.” “Kind of.” “Yeah, but there’s no logic to that. That seems completely unrelated, but somehow you’re Dr. Doolittle.” “You’re using World of Warcraft logic. The world wasn’t addicted to that for all of 2006.” “So, what’s your theory?” I had nothing. “Ok, fine. What’s your point?” “The point is that we should be able to use each other’s powers, at least a little.” “Yeah, I think that’s what Rachel told us, or something like that. We’d eventually figure out each other’s skills.” “But we’re actually going to do it today.” Now, he had my attention, but the look on Kevin’s face told me that I might not like what he had to say.

Ryan lifted the lid off of the barbeque. He dumped in a pile of match-light briquettes. “The only thing we need now is fire.” Ryan flicked his finger, igniting a little cigarette lighter of a flame from the tip. “One little flame, easy as that. Except that it’s going to have to come from you. And we’re not eating till one of you lights this grill.” Damn. I knew I wasn’t going to like this. The next half hour was spent staring at the coals, flicking our fingers, and a exchanging confused looks with Kevin. Meanwhile, Ryan and Rachel watched us closely. Rachel even took notes. Ryan held a fire extinguisher. “Hey, maybe we should eat first. Can’t think on an empty stomach.” I said this knowing the answer, but I was hungry. “Sorry, Steve. You see, the problem is that you’re trying to think through this. You just need to do it, and your stomach will motivate you.” Another half hour made me even hungrier, giving me plenty of motivation, but still no fire. Ryan and Rachel whispered to each other in the corner. I’m not sure what they said, but I bet it was something like this. “Maybe this won’t work?” “Nah, they can do it. They’ve got the power.” “But they have a good reason to light the fire. That’s when people figure out their magic.” “Let’s give them even more motivation.” “Ok, it’s your show…” Meanwhile, I was punching away at the barbeque. I’m not sure how this dome of cheap steel from WalMart became the test dummy for my magic, but this was the second time now. First it was trying to phase through the steel. That seemed impossible, but I did it. But now, this was something I could do in a second with a stupid match, yet it felt even more impossible.

“Hey, look over here.” Ryan held a skewered sausage over a flame rising from his hand. “Mmm, that smells good, doesn’t it? You can almost taste the smoky flavor just dripping down this thing. Want a taste, Rachel?” “Sure. Mmmm, this is really good. You guys would love it. If only you could light your little barbeque.” I growled and stewed, but nothing resembling fire came from my hand. I tried using one of the skewers like a wand, but that didn’t do much either. Kevin tried to ignite the skewers, or shoot them with his hand-print, but really nothing much happened. He just made a big mess. Ryan stepped up his motivation. “Dude, check this out. Rib-eye, baby. Rib-eye. Just check out the marbling on this guy. Mmm, that’d be some good eating.” “Yeah, it would be if I could get this stupid thing lit!” My actual words might have been a bit more colorful than that. I threw my skewer into the barbeque. But then something happened. The barbeque lit. “Hoowah! You did it!” Ryan slapped me on the back. Rachel scrambled to take notes and said, “So, how’d you do it?” “I’m not sure. I just threw the skewer.” “Not a problem.” Rachel dug into her bag and pulled out a pair of goggles. “Infrared. Now, try throwing an skewer again, just like you did before.” Ok… I didn’t think it’d do anything, nor did I see anything.

“Jackpot! You made the tip hot. Take a look.” Rachel put the goggles over my eyes, and sure enough, the tip of the skewer was glowing. “Keep the goggles and try to do it again. All you’ve got to do is make it glow brighter.” By the time the food was ready, I could make the skewers glow, and even ignite them about half of the time. I also realized that I could pick up a skewer after trying to light it, or maybe not even throw the skewer and get the same effect. “Just wave it in the air, like a sparkler.” Unfortunately, Rachel’s suggestion didn’t come until after I’d littered my backyard with dozens of skewers. But her suggestion worked. Soon, I could light a stick on fire just by waving it around. Ryan seemed impressed. “Sweet. You’ll be doing this in no time.” A flame rose from his hand and twirled like a tornado. “Showoff.” “Maybe, but if you want to see something even more interesting, look at your hand.” Until he mentioned it, my usual worry didn’t even cross my mind. But now, I didn’t want to look. Just one speck of damage meant another night in the reactor. Rachel grabbed my hand and looked over it carefully. “Not a scratch. No burns, no cracking, seems completely normal.” “Great, my brother’s invention can survive Ryan’s spells, but not mine.” I’m sure that went into her notes somewhere. Come to think of it, I never did see her notes, but I’m sure she was recording everything we did. Any good researcher would have done

that, and she wanted answers as bad as any of us. Of course, at the time, I was more concerned about getting food into my stomach. “Don’t worry, Steve, there’s plenty more. You too, Kev.” Ryan chuckled at the two of us as we destroyed everything in sight. Some of that was due to the starvation torture-training that he’d just put us through. Some of it was because using magic seemed to drain your strength or something, kind of like last night when I was finally able to sleep in the reactor. Luckily, I usually just notice myself getting really hungry and eating a ton. Rachel just watched us eat, quietly laughing to herself, just like she did in college. She only spoke up an hour later. “I can’t believe you’re still eating. I mean, you were a bottomless pit in college, but this is ridiculous.” Everyone else agreed. I had no choice but to concur. “Yeah, I guess I had a long day yesterday. Probably burned a ton of energy.” Rachel must have noticed something because she asked more questions. “What exactly happened yesterday?” “Well, there was this protest outside my office, so it messed up traffic, and their yelling made the dogs go nuts.” “That’s annoying, but why were you in the reactor this morning? And I thought you couldn’t sleep in there?” “Well, last night was hard too. I…” I paused, wondering if I should say. There is something about patient confidentiality, plus the fact that I didn’t really know how I was picked. But I guess these were my friends. “I helped out with a surgery, I guess.” “Surgery? You don’t do that.”

“Yeah, but the patient had a condition, so they needed my abilities.” “You phased through a patient to perform a surgery with no incisions.” Rachel seemed to figure it out a little too quickly. “Yeah.” “Ryan said you did something like that at the train crash. I figured it’d only be a matter of time before someone asked you to do that again.” “That must have been how they found me.” “Who found you?” “The guys who wanted me to perform the surgery, the Maharin Institute.” As soon as I said their name, a switch flipped inside Rachel. Just like that, she seemed real defensive. “Maharin Institute, as in John Maharin.” “Yeah, I met him last night. Something about that guy…” I noticed that a similar switch flipped inside Ryan as well. He turned and walked away, disappearing inside his back house. “Uh, who’s John Maharin?” “It’s not important.” With this said, Rachel picked up a notebook and did some work on a nearby table. Neither her nor Ryan told me anything at that time. I asked Kevin about it, but he had no clue. He just knew that for some reason, neither of them liked Dr. Maharin very much. I didn’t enquire. I was still hungry, tired, and too busy playing with fire. I think I must have tossed a thousand little fireballs into the barbeque that weekend. Anytime I wasn’t burning anything, I was sleeping or eating. And despite the fact that everything I

ate was greasy and horrifically delicious, I ended up losing weight. That was my weekend of living every teenage pyromaniac’s dream. Monday came around a bit too quickly, and I headed back into normal life. Thankfully, no protesters blocked traffic today. I did see a few picketers here and there, but they seemed content to be seen and not heard. The day felt normal as well. Patients and pets came and left, bills and checks were paid, and there was no sign that the past weekend was anything more than a normal weekend. I didn’t mind too much. There was no word of Mr. Benjamin on the wires, so I figured no news was good news. Dr. Maharin didn’t call either. I could say that I didn’t care, but I checked the mail every day for a letter or anything from the Institute. But after a week, I had enough of the usual junk on my mind to forget them. One day, I went to talk to my secretary about an insurance payment. It was the usual thing. “Why aren’t they paying this bill?” As usual, my secretary rolled her eyes. “They’re just doing their usual garbage again. Oh, we need a referral. Oh, can you resubmit the claim? Oh, didn’t we pay this one already? I thought the president fixed this mess back in 2009.” Every time this occurred, I wondered if I should switch to all pets. But just then, the UPS guy arrived with an envelope and the usual, “Sign here.” “Who’s that from?” asked my secretary. “The Maharin Institute.” I tore open the envelope to find two things. One, a note from Dr. Maharin that simply read, “Thanks for your help.” The note was wrapped around a check – for one million dollars.

I’m not exactly sure what I did next. My secretary tells stories about me dancing around, singing stuff like, “I don’t have to worry about money for a-while!” Maybe a lot of “Holy Crap!” or “Jeezzzzz!!!!” So, yeah, it seemed that my first experience with the Maharin Institute worked out pretty well for me.. I sure thought so. My secretary thought so. Kevin liked it when it got him a nice chateaubriand. But Ryan was the last holdout. “Come on, Ryan, what could possibly be wrong with this?” “I don’t trust that Maharin guy. If you take a million dollars from him, you owe him one.” “Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. But this isn’t like Don Corelone or something. He’s just a researcher.” “How’s your history with researchers?” I stopped, not saying another word. He kept going. “Remember working one summer at a lab. You were the man there.” “Shut up.” “No, you figured out their big problem. The lost coding of introns, I think you called it.” “Shut up man.” “The head of that lab got a huge grant because of that. He even got to meet the president. Big time shit. But did you get anything? Nope.” “I said shut up.”

“And who was that big time head? Oh yeah, I remember. It was your brother. Dave.” “Will you shut the fuck up!” Ryan paused. He stood and began to walk away, but he had one more thing to say. “Just be careful.” He didn’t have to say, “Because people like this have used you in the past.” I think I yelled at him as he was walking away. “Just because it happened in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad could happen now, right? I mean, I had no intention of working with Maharin’s bunch. I did a job, got out, and got paid. I could easily say no to anything I didn’t want. Plenty of agencies and people had contacted me already, and I’d said no to all of them. Hell, I said no to Maharin’s bunch a lot of times. I only said yes because someone’s life was on the line, right?” I thought I was right. No matter what, I was just going to chill for a while. Nothing weird, nothing magical, just go to work, treat some dogs, keep a low profile. This would blow over, especially with the protests, the changing work climate, and thousands of people getting weird abilities. Well, most of them were just really strong, or fast, or normal kinds of things like that, but still, no news agencies were hitting me for interviews anymore. I was cool. That’s what I thought when a man in a suit came into my office. I thought he was just a walk-in, or maybe lost in the building. “Can I help you?” “Yes, I’m looking for a Dr. Shao.” “That’s me.”

He handed me an envelope and took a picture of me. Then he turned and left my office. I wasn’t sure what to do for a moment. This felt really odd. But then I looked at the envelope – it was from the Los Angeles Superior Court. It was a summons.