Authors: Deva Fagan
"I need to help with the test setup. They want to run you through after breakfast, to find out what you can do. Don't worry; you'll be fine."
A pang of fear twists my stomach. Breakfast suddenly sounds a lot less appealing. "Sounds like fun. Can't wait."
My insides don't quiet down, even with the distraction of Nola showing me the bathrooms, the storage lockers, and the laundry chute. By the time we reach the cafeteria, I feel like a pair of boa constrictors is having a fight in my stomach.
The rest of the troupe crowds around four of the tables, helping themselves from the army of steaming platters. There's a fifth table standing lonely in the corner, completely empty. Yeah, that's a good sign. Social failure, here I come.
"I'm sorry," Nola says, twisting her hands together. "I feel horrible setting you loose in the cafeteria by yourself."
"Are you worried about me or the rest of the troupe?" I say, smiling so maybe she won't see how nervous I am.
"Heh. Maybe both. But seriously, you'll be fine. You could sit with the Techs. They wouldn't mind."
"Yeah." I follow her gesture to the seven kids at the nearest table. "I don't think they'd even realize I was there." Every one of them has a sparky wrench insignia and is wearing what look like large wraparound sunglasses. They sit staring straight ahead, eating in complete silence.
Nola winces. "It's easier to talk and eat at the same time if you do the talking virtually. No choking."
"Smart. It's okay; I can handle this. Go on. I'll see you later."
Nola still looks worried, but she nods. "You really better turn on your know-it-all, Trix. You'll need it to find the testing room."
"Okay, okay. After breakfast. I'm not eating with that thing babbling in my ear about evil twins from some silly soap opera."
I watch Nola head off, glad for an excuse to keep my back to the room while I come up with a plan of attack. I'll turn around, walk past each of the tables, and see if anyone looks friendly. If they completely ignore me, I'll sit at the empty one and make it my own.
I really hope they don't ignore me. Please let just one person give me a smile. Even a smirk! I can work with a smirk. All right. Here I go. I straighten my shoulders and turn around.
The Techs are a lost cause, so I move on to the next table, where a dozen or so boys and girls lounge like a pack of lions in the sun. Stars glitter from the patches decorating their jackets, shirts, and scarves. Sirra doesn't ignore me, that's for sure, but her look hardly says "Come sit at my table and we'll make up." It's more like "Get out of my spaceship and never come back." I keep walking.
The third table is the smallest, and the collection of people around it is definitely the oddest. A boy who looks a lot like a giant snail sits snuffling a plate of spongy brown cutlets. He's flanked by the rock boy I saw last night and a kid who looks like a walking alligator. The most normal of the group is a girl with a crackling haystack of white-blond hair who stares at me through thick, dark-rimmed goggles.
I guess I better give it a shot.
"Hey," I say. "I'm new here. My name's Trix."
The blonde tilts her head. "One thousand three hundred forty-nine. Go and find it. Go!"
I back away. "Ahhh. Okay. Table's full. Got it." Great. Even the Freaks don't want me. One more left before I'm doomed to the Siberia of table five.
I can't see much of the fourth table, because there are about twenty kids packed around it. Popcorn Boy is there, with his cockatoo crest of red hair. He's balancing three knives end to end as he tilts back in his chair. A girl with curly green hair sits perched on the back of her own seat, juggling what look like blueberry muffins. As I watch, she bounces one in a very unmuffinlike way off the table. The only person who isn't joking, juggling, laughing, or dancing is the girl in black at the very end of the table, who's completely ignoring the rest of them.
"Hey, Theon, do you like my new act?" asks Popcorn Boy as he adds a fourth knife to his tower.
"You call balancing a few knives an act?" says the green-haired girl. "Give it up, Jom. And while you're at it, try not to rubberize the muffins next time."
"They taste fine. Besides, this way no one will notice if you drop one." He gives her a cheeky grin.
"You are so going to regret that." The girl, Theon, begins pelting the redhead with her muffins. He yelps and topples backward.
Everyone ducks as the cutlery goes flying, except the goth chick at the end of the table. She just looks bored, even with one of the knives flying right into her forehead. No,
her forehead! Like she's a ghost or something! Unbelievable! The knife clatters onto the floor behind her. She picks up one of the muffins, dusts it off, and takes a bite.
where I belong.
I run through possible lines.
Hi, I'm Trix. Please let me sit with you so I don't look like a dork.
No, definitely not.
Hi, I'm Trix. I've got no idea what I can do, but you guys look like the most fun bunch, so here I am.
I sigh. It might work.
I'm about to try it out when someone taps my shoulder. It's the boy who tried to call Sirra off last night. "Hi," he says, smiling. And it's an honest-to-goodness smile, too. "Do you need a place to sit?"
I shoot one look at the empty fifth table. "Um. Yeah. Guess it's a little obvious I'm new here. Trix. Is my name, I mean. Beatrix Ling. But you can call me Trix." Man, could I sound
"I'm Etander. Come on, you can sit with us." He starts back toward the Principals' table. Okay, I can do this. I slide into the chair Etander offers and hope I'm not smiling like a maniac as he introduces me to the Principals.
I'm sure my know-it-all would be happy to record their names, but I am
ready to deal with that level of crazy right now. Within five minutes about the only thing I can remember is that the black and white spotted girl who bends light is named Dalmatian, and she only joined the troupe a few months ago herself. The others are a mixture of flashy outfits and exotic colors who do things like contortion and tightrope balancing and sound sculpture, whatever that is.
"And you already met my sister, Sirra Centaurus," Etander finishes.
Sirra looks like she's sucking on a lemon. "This is the Principals' table, Etander. Not a home for strays."
"Don't mind her," says Etander, rolling his eyes. "She's not used to anyone matching her in the Arena. You did very well."
"Not as well as your sister," I answer, feeling generous now that I have potential allies. "So does that mean you're from the Centaurus galaxy cluster?"
Etander clears his throat, glancing at Sirra. "Yes."
"Ignore the humble act," says someone at the end of the table. "It means their family
"The Centaurus Corporation owns it," snaps Sirra. "And we're here now, like it or not. So it doesn't matter. Drop it. We're neglecting our guest of honor." She pushes a platter of bright yellow curds across the table. "Try the scrambled pepper-eggs, Trix. They're delicious."
"You ought to check with your know-it-all," says Etander. "It might not be safe."
"Oh, I'm sure Trix is up for anything." Sirra smiles. "She did match me in the Arena."
"Yeah, but I'm not stupid." I tap the button on my earpiece. Nothing. "Um. Know-it-all? Are you there?"
"Oh, so we're talking again, are we? You invite me in and then you shut me out. Don't you care about
"Not really," I say. "Are pepper-eggs safe to eat?"
My know-it-all huffs. "For that, my dear, I very well might keep the latest
Love Among the Stars
scoop to myself."
"Good. I've heard enough about that stupid show already. Just tell me if I can eat the eggs."
"Are you sure? It's quite the shocker! Oooh, the plot twists!"
"Just. Yes. Or. No."
"Yes." My know-it-all goes silent. If it had a body, I bet it would be crossing its arms and looking pointedly away. I flop a spoonful of the eggs onto my empty plate. My stomach grumbles. I hope they taste as good as they smell.
I pause, fork raised partway to my lips. Sirra is giving me an awfully strange look. I wonder if she's planning to wig me out by telling me these are bug eggs or something. But I've already seen half the other kids eating them. And my know-it-all said they were safe. I take a bite.
My mouth bursts into flames. Seriously, it feels like someone is rubbing hot coals along my tongue. I sputter, forcing myself to gulp down the bite rather than risk spewing it on everyone else. Not that Sirra doesn't deserve it.
"Little spicy?" Sirra asks, taking a bite of her own, hoity-toity as a lady eating tea sandwiches.
I try to say something rude, but it hurts too much. I grab a glass of green juice and suck it down so fast I don't even taste it. Maybe the pepper-eggs already burned away my taste buds.
"Mmmphhhagh! Stupid overgrown encyclopedia!" I slap my earpiece. "What was that, Britannica? You said they were safe!"
"They are," chirps the know-it-all, rather smugly. "You're alive."
"Why didn't you
me it was going to burn my mouth out?"
"Yes or no. I believe those were your exact words."
I fume incoherently. It doesn't help that half the table is giggling. No way. Not here. Not again. I will
be the loser everyone else laughs at.
"Come on," says Sirra, rising. "Time for those of us who belong here to get to work. Miss Three is waiting for us."
The rest of the table filters away, leaving me rubbing my streaming eyes. As I'm fumbling for more juice, someone pushes something crusty and crumbly into my hand.
"Eat that," says Etander. "It should cut the heat. According to my know-it-all, that is."
I blink at the thing in my hand. It looks like a piece of toast. I figure things can't really get much worse, so I take a bite. It doesn't make everything magically all better, but he's right: It does dull the pain. I look up to thank Etander, but he's gone already, disappearing out the door with his sister.
"Listen up, you demonic thing," I inform my know-it-all. "You are going to take me to Nola. You are not leaving out any more important details. You are not letting me make a fool of myself."
"I'm a know-it-all, dear, not a miracle worker."
"I mean it. Or I'm cutting your feed from
Love Among the Stars
"Hmmph. Very well. Stand up from the table. Turn left. Walk twenty paces. Go through the door. Turn rightâ"
"You're pushing it, Britannica."
I groan. "After this, being tested for superpowers'll be a picnic." I stand up, turn left, and walk twenty paces out the door.
SO WHO'S MISS THREE?" I ask as I do yet another lap around the common room, too nervous to sit. I feel like a pinball, rattling around waiting to be bounced in or out of the game. "I thought she was training the Principals right now."
"She is," says Nola. She sits cross-legged on the floor, fiddling with a bundle of blinking wires and mechanical guts that hang from the wall. "She's an artificial intelligence, but she's got three different simulacra. Did that translate? You know what I'm talking about, right?"
I stop pacing. "In the movies on Earth, the Als are usually the bad guys."
"Well..." Nola twiddles with one of the wires, zapping it with her wrench.
"I don't like the sound of that."
a bad guy. Was, I mean. She was created by the Mandate, years and years ago."
"And you invited her onto your Tinker ship? I thought the Mandate were the Big Bad?"
"The Ringmaster reprogrammed Miss Three himself. He wanted to learn about the Mandate, and Miss Three can teach us."
"So you can fight them?"
"You cannot fight the Mandate," says a voice that bites my skin like a static shock. I whirl around to see a ghostly figure in a dark suit that definitely was not there a moment ago. The hologram holds a clipboard and stylus as insubstantial as herself. With her slicked-back hair and perfect bone structure, she reminds me a lot of a department store mannequin.
Nola stops fiddling with her wires and scrambles to her feet. "Miss Three, this isâ"
"Our beloved Ringmaster's newest recruit. Beatrix Ling. Lately of Sol-3, commonly called Earth by the distressing melange of individuals that live there," says Miss Three. "Currently unclassified."
I straighten my shoulders. "I'm ready for your tests."
"Convinced you're something special, are you? No doubt he's already filled your head with dreams of being a star."
I stare right back. No way some microchip is getting me riled up.
She gives a little shrug, then runs a stylus across her clipboard. "Let's get started, then. We'll begin with the medical examination."
An hour later, I've been poked and pricked and prodded enough for a hundred checkups. I lift weights, run on a treadmill, jump, tumble, balance, and throw darts at a screen. All the while Miss Three watches, like it's all some faintly amusing practical joke.
Nola hustles around silently, fetching this or that instrument when Miss Three requests it, occasionally shooting me reassuring looks.
I'm trying harder than I've tried for anything in my whole life. I know I nail the physical tests. But I don't warp gravity. I don't shoot lightning out of my fingertips. Aside from my pink hair, I'm depressingly normal.
"That's enough, Nola," says Miss Three. "Clearly Miss Ling has only an average degree of visual recall."
Nola gulps and flicks a switch. The shapes vanish from the wallscreen.
"Wait! Let me try again! I
have a good memory. I've got practically every constellation memorized."
"All well and good, Miss Ling, but I'm afraid our audiences are unlikely to be entertained by a recitation of crude astronomical nomenclature pertaining to a sky they will never see."