The next morning, I woke early so I could catch Alpha before the rest of the team woke. Poking my head out of my room, I watched Alpha go through her morning exercises. Right now, she was moving slowly through different yoga poses, eyes closed, face serene. I winced as she took a particularly painful looking pose, but her facial expression never changed.
As I was wondering how to announce myself without startling her, she spoke, eyes still closed. "Song. Did you need something? Or are you just up early?" Her voice was soft, her tone relaxed.
My eyes widened as she put first one leg behind her head, and then the other. "I had no idea you were that flexible," I muttered.
She laughed. "Was that all you wanted to discuss?"
I shook my head, realized she still had her eyes closed, and said, "No. Ember is… Worried about me going to see Dr. Theris."
"Is he?" murmured Alpha. "Why?"
Ember appeared. "Alpha. We need to talk."
"So Song said," sighed Alpha. She pulled her feet out from behind her head, opened her eyes, and stood. "Why are you so worried about Dr. Theris?"
Ember's eyes narrowed. "She's a thaumaturgical researcher. What if she decides to figure out what is behind Song's abilities? Song could end up in a lab somewhere."
Alpha began to laugh.
Ember glared at her. "It's not funny."
Alpha raised her hands placatingly, still laughing. "I'm sorry. It's just, if you had any idea of who Dr. Theris is, you would know that her kidnapping Song to research Song's powers is the last thing we need to worry about."
Ember didn't look convinced. "Why?"
Alpha shrugged. "Because Dr. Theris has proved, time and time again, that she is extremely against unwilling metasapient test subjects." She frowned. "I should really get Shark and Jazz out here if we're going to discuss this."
"Why?" I asked.
"It's their history too," Alpha explained. "Their secrets." She started toward the room Shark and Jazz shared. "I'll ask them."
A few minutes later, Shark was sitting on the couch, looking a bit groggy and holding a cup of coffee. Jazz was asleep, but she'd stuck her head out of the room long enough to mutter, "Tell her if you want to. I don't give a drek."
Alpha looked at Ember and I. "So," she said. Then she frowned. "I'm honestly not sure where to start my story. I've never actually told it to anyone."
I frowned. "Doesn't Jazz know?"
Shark looked up from his coffee cup. "I told her." He smiled. "Not telling it this time. It's your turn, Alpha."
Alpha sighed. "I suppose I should start at the beginning. The very beginning." She took a deep breath. "Song. What do you think my metatype is?"
I blinked, surprised. "I don't know. You've never told me, and I couldn't even begin to guess." I frowned. "Though I'm pretty sure you're not a dwarf. I think I would have noticed if you had thermographic vision."
Alpha nodded. "You're right; I'm not. But I'm not a human or an elf either. Not really."
My eyes widened. "Was Lucky right? Are you actually a troll?"
Alpha looked startled. "What?" Then she shook her head. "No, no. Nothing like that. I'm… I'm not really any standard metatype. I'm a genetic experiment."
I tried to process the information. "So you were made in a lab?"
Alpha nodded. "Yes. So was Shark. It was the same lab, actually. They were attempting to create supersoldiers. I was supposed to be a spy. My ability to shapechange, that's not actually magic, for the most part. It's genetic engineering."
"My model," she continued, "Was very heavily modified from the base genetic code." She grinned. "I've got all sorts of neat built in features. For starters, there's all the shapeshifting things you've seen. I've also got synaptic boosters, to increase my reflexes, and tailored pheromones, which are supposed to make people like and trust me more. Then there's these." Alpha bared her teeth. To my surprise, two fangs popped out of her gums. Then they retracted, and it was like they were never there. Alpha grinned. "They're connected to a gland that makes a potent knockout drug. If I so much as nick someone with those, they're out for the count."
"What if you accidentally bite yourself?" I wanted to know.
Alpha shrugged. "I am heavily resistant to drugs and toxins. Like, really heavily. My knockout juice doesn't affect me at all, and neither does anything else. I could drink Shark under the table."
Shark, who was easily four times her weight, chuckled. "If I was dumb enough to try to take you on. I know exactly what you're capable of."
I looked at Shark. "So, if Alpha is heavily modified, what about you?"
Shark shrugged. "They were mostly planning to modify me with cyberware, so they didn't make as many genetic modifications. I've just got synaptic boosters, my teeth, and some skin mods. Or, at least, that's all that was originally built in. They added some other stuff later on."
"Were there other...models?" I asked.
Alpha nodded. "Four models. I was model Alpha. Beta was designed for underwater work, and now goes by Frog. You might meet him someday. Shark was Gamma. And then there was Delta..." Sadness crossed Alpha's features. "We had a… falling out. She hasn't talked to any of the rest of us in ages. I'm not even sure she's still alive."
Ember crossed his arms. "This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with Dr. Theris?"
"I'm getting to that," Alpha said. "When Delta and I Awakened, they brought in several experts in magical research to see if any of our genetic modifications had affected that. One of them was Dr. Theris." Alpha smiled. "She went by a different name then. Dr. Theris is actually a fake identity. She had to change it after she busted the four of us out."
I gasped. "She busted you out? All on her own?"
Alpha shook her head. "Not exactly. She gave us the idea. She encouraged us. She sabotaged the lab equipment that was used to keep us in line. Then we busted ourselves out." Alpha grinned at what was obviously a happy memory. "We kicked some serious ass that day."
Shark nodded. "That we did."
Alpha continued the story. "So we all went into hiding, including Dr. Theris, but we stayed in touch with her. Dr. Theris managed to get the position she has now at the university. While she was there, she met a Jazz."
"Was Jazz a student?" I asked.
Alpha nodded. "Yes. Studying Parazoology on a scholarship. She went by a different name then. When her technomancer abilities began to manifest, she made the mistake of telling one of her professors." Alpha's voice hardened. "He reported her to a corp for the bounty."
I grimaced. "That's horrible."
Alpha sighed. "It's the way the world works sometimes. Fortunately for Jazz, Dr. Theris found out before Jazz was taken away. Dr. Theris hired Shark, Delta, and I to rescue Jazz." Alpha's eyes were distant. "It was the first time we'd gone up against another runner team. We nearly lost Delta that day." Alpha shook her head. "Delta tended to take risks, especially when lives were on the line. Thought with her heart, not her head."
I frowned, wondering if I should ask about Delta. In the end, I decided not to. "And then Jazz joined the team?" I asked.
"Not immediately," Alpha replied. "Jazz tried to go home, to her parents. But they couldn't keep her safe. In the end, she had to disappear, in order to protect them." Sympathy crossed Alpha's face. "I think she misses them."
Shark nodded. "She does." He met my gaze. "I wouldn't try to talk to her about them, if I were you."
"Of course," I said. "I understand." I looked down. "I mean, I miss my parents, too."
Alpha's eyes softened. "I know you do."
I frowned. "You and Shark, you never really had parents, did you?"
Alpha shook her head. "No."
"Do you ever wish you had a family?" I wanted to know.
Alpha shrugged. "You can't miss what you've never had." Her mouth quirked up in the corner. "Besides, at the risk of sounding sappy, I've got you guys. That's enough." She turned to Ember. "Are you satisfied?"
Ember nodded. "I am." He frowned. "I'm still coming, though."
Alpha nodded. "Of course. I understand."
The university was both large and very very aesthetically pleasing, with lots of impressive buildings and tree lined avenues. There were even a few fountains, and a small, well tended pond. It catered to students with rich parents, with the occasional scholarship student thrown in to make the place look good.
The three of us would have stuck out like sore thumbs in our usual outfits. Fortunately, Alpha knew how to make us look like we belonged. She and I were dressed like students, with fake designer clothes and fancy looking backpacks. Shark, being a troll, would have stuck out if he tried to pass for a student. Instead, he wore what looked like a bodyguard's outfit. According to Alpha, it was not unusual for the richer students to have personal bodyguards.
Alpha had called ahead, so Dr. Theris knew we were coming. I wondered vaguely how she'd gotten the position here. Surely they performed extensive background checks. A fake SIN would not go unnoticed during such a check, would it? And didn't getting a position at a university require references? How had she gotten those?
I shrugged and put the mystery aside for another time. Perhaps I'd ask Dr. Theris when we met her. Or perhaps not. I didn't want to be too nosy.
I'd been going to a university not much different from this one when my mother had died. I'd never finish my degree. For a moment, I felt the pang of loss, of what could have been.
"You ok, Song?" asked Ember in his mental voice. Of course he had noticed the shift in my emotions from the astral. Paw and Carmilla likely had as well.
I couldn't reply without entering the astral myself, so I just nodded. It was weird, I mused, that I could hear him without entering the astral. Another mystery for another time.
A few minutes later, Ember announced, "We've got company." He sounded mildly amused. "A few local free spirits. They're very curious about you, Song."
Still unable to answer, I just shrugged. It made sense that there would be local free spirits. Most spirits preferred naturalish areas over the concrete and metal shrouded city centers. The water features would attract water spirits. The plant life would attract plant spirits. There might even be a few earth or air spirits around. And, of course, I drew spirits like some sort of weird magnet.
I followed Alpha into a building. "This is where a lot of the thaumaturgical studies professors have their offices," she explained. "We're supposed to meet Dr. Theris in her office." She looked at the numbers on the doors. "Let's see… 102, 103… Ah, there's 104." She knocked on the door.
"Come in," a voice said.
Alpha opened the door and smiled. "Dr. Theris."
The woman sitting in the office smiled warmly. "Alpha! Shark! And you must be Songbird. Come in, sit."
The three of us sat across from her desk. The professor had obviously been expecting us. She had just enough chairs for the three of us, as well as four cups of tea.
Dr. Theris smiled at me. "Do you mind if I assense you? Alpha says you have some unusual abilities, and I'd like to gather some information on them before hearing details. That way, my first view of your astral self is unbiased."
I nodded. "Feel free."
Dr. Theris's eyes unfocused as she used her astral sight. A moment later, they focused on us again. She was frowning. "Is there a reason there are a dozen or so spirits crowded into my office?"
I blushed. "That's, umm, kind of one of my unusual abilities. If you can call it an ability. Spirits like me. A lot."
Dr. Theris looked mildly surprised. "Your aura doesn't seem to suggest any sort of ability with spirits. In fact, it doesn't seem to suggest any sort of strange abilities at all."
Alpha nodded. "That's what I thought." She grimaced. "Most spirits seem to think otherwise. Ember, one of the spirits you just saw, says it looks nice, but he doesn't seem to be able to describe it better than that."
Ember materialized, and Dr. Theris jumped. "It's more like your limited method of communication doesn't have the words," he said, sounding miffed.
The professor nodded slowly. "I see. And I take it this is not your only ability?"
I blushed. "I can hear spirits, even when they're not linked to me and I'm not astral projecting. When I sing, spirits really like it, and are compelled to materialize. And, when I summon, I take less serious damage than most people. Also, I can summon spirits not in my tradition."
Dr. Theris frowned thoughtfully. "Frankly, Songbird, I've never heard of abilities like yours before. Some people have a sort of affinity for one type of spirit, but never more than one type. And the rest is like nothing I've ever read about." She shrugged. "I could try to do further research, but I'm not sure where to start, and, while there is lab equipment that will examine your aura more thoroughly than I can, I don't think I could use it discretely." She shrugged again. "I'll do my best, but I can't promise anything."
Alpha nodded, seeming discouraged. "I do have another puzzle for you, but I doubt you'll have any more luck with this one." She explained about the pickpocket.
When she was done, Dr. Theris smiled. "Actually, I'm pretty certain I have the solution for this. You know what pixies are, yes?"
Alpha nodded. "Yeah. I've heard of pixies. What about them?"
"They have a method of concealing themselves that also hides them from astral sight," explained Dr. Theris. "Some spirits can do it too, but most of them don't also have the stealth abilities required to make it really effective. You could be dealing with a stealthy mage who summoned a spirit with concealment abilities, but, as the spirit must be within line of sight to conceal the mage, I doubt it. Also, these seem to be largely petty thefts. Spending a spirit's services to simply pickpocket someone would not be terribly cost effective."
Ember frowned. "There were no spirits in the area I could see, aside from Paw and Carmilla."
"Then it is most likely a pixie," concluded Dr. Theris. "And even if it isn't…" She grinned. "I happen to have access to an experimental spell that counters concealment effects of all types. Not invisibility spells, you understand. Just the concealment power some spirits, a few paracritters, and all pixies possess. When cast, it allows the subject to pierce the concealment effect." She rummaged in her desk. "I know I have it somewhere… Ah. There it is."
She pulled out a folder full of papers. "The spell formula," she explained. "It is formatted in such a way that multiple traditions can learn it." She passed it to me. "Do you think you can figure it out?"
Slowly, I paged through the papers as Alpha, Shark, and Dr. Theris watched patiently. "I think so," I concluded.
Dr. Theris nodded. "Then you can have that copy. I can print myself another. Keep in mind, however, that the spell is experimental. It may have unexpected side effects, especially when mixed with other magic."
I nodded. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Let me know how things go," Dr. Theris told us. "I particularly want to hear about the spell's performance."
Alpha smiled. "Of course. Thank you so much for your help."
Dr. Theris shrugged. "It is my pleasure to help a friend, Alpha. I just wish I could provide more insight on Songbird's abilities." She frowned. "I'd advise you to keep quiet on the nature of your abilities, Songbird. They are unique enough that they might attract trouble."
I nodded vigorously. "Trust me, I'm not planning on telling anyone else about them."
The professor smiled. "Good. Now, tell me, Alpha, Shark, how have you been? And how is Jazz?"
I was surprised about how much of our recent activities Alpha and Shark shared. They really trusted Dr. Theris, I mused as the three of us left the campus. I noticed, however, that Alpha hadn't mentioned my past to her. I wondered if that meant there were limits to her trust, or if she just hadn't wanted to upset me.
As the three of us walked down the tree lined avenue, Alpha abruptly swore. Her voice was soft, as if she didn't want to be overheard. She was equally quiet when she said, "Don't look, but I think we're being followed."
Shark grunted. "Anyone we know?"
Alpha nodded. "I've seen him before. It's Dr. Thompson."
Now it was Shark's turn to swear. "I don't suppose there's any possibility he recognized you?"
Alpha shook her head. "Of course not, but it's a good thing Jazz isn't with us. And not just because he might recognize her. I'm not sure what she might do in this situation."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Dr. Thompson," Shark explained grimly, "Is the one who sold out Jazz."
I shivered. "Why is he following us?"
Alpha shrugged, but Ember answered. "He is astrally perceiving," he told me. "I think he noticed your… tail."
I turned to Alpha. '"Ember said he probably sees the spirits following me."
Alpha swore again. "Can you get them to go away?"
Mutely, I shook my head. "Ember?" I muttered. "Can you make them go away?"
There was a moment before Ember answered. "No," he said, sounding irritated. "They don't want to leave, and I can't fight off this many."
"What if Carmilla and Paw help?" I murmured.
Alpha spoke. "I think that a few spirits suddenly driving off the rest would make us look even more suspicious," she said. "Now, hush, he's coming closer."
Soon, a respectable looking elderly man with glasses walking into my line of sight. He smiled at me and Alpha. "Hello. Fine day, isn't it?"
Alpha nodded, smiling like she didn't have a care in the world. "A very fine day."
"I'm Professor Thompson," the man said, still smiling. "You two must be new. I haven't seen you around campus before."
Alpha nodded, grinning. "Yup! It's our first semester."
"I don't suppose either of you have one of my classes?" said the professor. "I teach parazoology."
Alpha smiled and shook her head. "I'm afraid not. How long have you been a professor here?"
"Oh, quite a while," said the professor, laughing. "Parazoology fascinates me. Are either of you majoring in it?"
Alpha shook her head. "Nope! But it does sound cool." Before the professor could say anything else, she launched into a story about the time she thought she'd seen a montauk, which, I recalled, was a type of awakened racoon. I doubted the story was true, because she started it with, "So Daddy took us on vacation…"
It took awhile for the professor to get a few words in. "Fascinating! Perhaps you should switch majors. What is your major, by the way?" He said this in a rush as Alpha took a pause to breathe.
Alpha laughed. "Oh, nothing terribly interesting. Daddy insisted I take something useful."
"So business, then?" asked the professor.
Nope," Alpha said. "Oh, I wish I could study parazoology, like you. It sounds so much more interesting." She launched into another airheaded story about a time she'd gone to the zoo.
We'd reached our parking lot. Only a bit more to go. Just before we managed to reach our car, Dr. Thompson managed to get in another few words. "What's your major, young lady?" He smiled at me.
I stared at him like a deer caught in headlights. What could I say? "Business," I blurted out. That had been my major when I was actually going to college. My mother had insisted.
Alpha smiled. "Oh, there's our car! It was nice meeting you!" She fumbled for her keys. Soon, we were driving away.
As we headed toward the apartment, Alpha sighed. "I wish you hadn't said that, Song."
I blinked. "Said what?"
"A fake major," Alpha said. "He'll try to look you up for sure."
I grinned. "But he won't find anything!"
My grin faded a bit at Alpha's grim expression. It went away entirely when she said, "That's the problem. He'll know we were intruders, and he'll tell security. That will make it much harder for us to get in next time. It might even get Dr. Theris in trouble, since she gave us the access card we used to get in. I mean, I'm pretty sure she was smart enough to cover her tracks, but it's possible they'll figure out she was the one who let us in."
I looked down. "I'm sorry."
Alpha sighed. "I know. I'm sorry, too. I should have warned you not to give any fake identifying information."
"At least I'll know for next time," I said in a small voice.
"You will. And it's not a huge deal," said Alpha. She sighed again. "I just hope Dr. Theris is going to be ok."