Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Winter Highlighter

Previously: When a scientific experiment went wrong, the Science Block of Gilliam High School was blasted with a radioactive explosion. This explosion blessed some of the students and teachers with incredible powers. Freya Carter gained the ability to freeze time; she is Tempus. Steven Bettany gained the power to summon anything; he is the Summoner. Ali Grant can run really, really quickly; she is the Flish. Sophie Khan can control probability itself; she is Lucky Cat. Chris Rogers becomes muscular and awesome when he eats a Jaffa Cake; he is Captain Jaffa Cake. Led by their Computer Science teacher, Reiteration Man, their aim is to save the world from strange threats, and complain about the rigours of GCSEs whilst they’re at it.
Last time: The heroes discovered their abilities and defeated Mr Jordan, their evil Maths Teacher who was bent on using his new found powers to steal the Mathematical potential of his most promising students.

Children of the atom, students of Computer Science, nerds misunderstood and stereotyped by the teachers and students they have sworn to protect, these are the geekiest heroes of all! The Gang!

Somewhere, the head of English was subjecting her class to a Liverpudlian musical. Elsewhere, Mr Meaks was threatening a particularly tall student with detention on account of her height. Here and now, however, a fan was blowing. Steven looked straight into the heart of its windy exclamations, his ever growing facial hair dragged back as if he was climbing Everest. He would not let it conquer him and nor would he let the hissed arguments of his peers behind him dissuade him from his evangelistic mission. The Gods had placed him on this Earth for a reason and he intended to do them proud.
Tentatively and with a great sense of trepidation, Steven struggled forward against the screaming breezes, his fingers burning against the force of his enemy. He continued to struggle and then hit the button marked 0. The fan spluttered for a second and then began to calm down, the propeller turning slower and slower until it stopped. The fan died. Steven grinned. There was outward sighs of frustration behind but he didn’t pay it any heed. Ellie Wright could melt for all he cared so long as he didn’t have to put up with the risk of pneumonia any longer!
Now that he had conquered his seemingly immortal foe, he turned his attention to the rest of the room. It was a garish exploration of Shakespearean fan art, so called ‘motivational posters’ and high lighter fluid. On one side of the room was a display of travel writing work, including his A2 poster composed of solid black inked writing as a rejection of colour and art in English lessons, and on the other side of the room was a display of Romeo and Juliet work, including his A3 poster composed of solid black inked writing as a rejection of colour and art in English lessons. Their teacher, Mrs Carpenter, was famed for her collection of highlighters- a different colour for every situation. It was fair to say they didn’t see eye to eye.
On the desk in front of Steven was a partially transparent pink pencil case. It was exactly parallel to the length of the table and perpendicular to the width. Inside was a glue stick he could guarantee was empty- he called it the Carpenter Adhesive Principle- a pair of green pens, a pair of scissors, a pair of black pens, a rubber and a thirty centimetre ruler that didn’t fit inside the box so was kept on the side. In case this wasn’t obvious enough already, a laminated sheet at the bottom of the box listed its inventory. It was on pain of death to not return something at the end of a lesson.
Mrs Carpenter herself was a young, fashionable woman- or, at least, she was young and fashionable in comparison to the rest of the English Department- with a great passion for ‘straight jacket approaches’ and an almost pathological hatred of dashes and bad handwriting. She was currently lecturing the class, in the third person no doubt, on how the Thatcherist movement influenced the writing of Romeo and Juliet and other pieces of inaccurate social historical context. “Urgh! Shut up Miss, I’m sure you’re saying. Just let us get on with the work Miss! Well, Miss needs to tell you one last thing before you get on. As we know from our own research, I believe Becca mentioned it in one of the twenty essays she did over the half term- Mr Carpenter wanted to walk the dog when Miss was marking them but I said No! I’ve got to get them marked for Becca so I did, even if it took Miss ages- but anyway…” She performed her usual trick of letting out an exhausted sigh whilst the class tried to catch up on the verbally pyroclastic flow of spiel she had just spurted before continuing. “As I was saying, it’s important you know this for your exams. Now, as we all know, Shakespeare died in 1616. In 1642, the theatres were closed down as to prevent the easy spread of Bubonic Plague in large, public areas. Now, this is obviously connected to the plague in Mantua as mentioned in Romeo and Juliet…”
Whilst she droned on, Steven zoned out. It’d been a few months since the ‘Calculator Incident’ and since then, nothing much had happened. Mr Phillips had organised a few more training days but besides that there hadn’t been very many call outs for the Gang. He knew the others were happy about that, as Tony Stark had pointed out in Age of Ultron the idea of superheroes was to end the need for superheroes, but he missed being able to save people. Maybe it was his ego, maybe it was the way Sophie had smiled at him when he summoned something cool, he didn’t know. He just knew that compared to Steven Bettany, he much preferred the Summoner.
He cast brief glances over his shoulder. Despite the sight of Ellie Wright boiling to death now the fan was off, he saw Ali sat at the back of the classroom highlighting sticky notes for fun. She was more on his side when it came to the superheroics being a fun thing. Perhaps they could get a police scanner and go rescue people from burning buildings- no. That was too Incredibles.
Freya was sat next to him. She was making detailed notes on Mrs Carpenter’s gems of information but he knew that as soon as the lesson ended she’d tell him how wrong they were. She was cool like that.
Sophie and Chris, on the other hand, were on the other side of the room, occasionally sniggering to each other, occasionally pointing things out in the copies of the text and grinning. He couldn’t wait till Mrs Carpenter would allow them all to move and sit together. Then the horror of English lessons and their routine tyranny would end. As an act of rebellion, he reached out one finger and knocked the pencil case slightly askew.
The room plunged instantly into silence, Mrs Carpenter pausing in her speech. She turned two burning eyes to Steven and silently stalked across the room. One of her skeletal fingers reached out and straightened the pencil case. Another turned the fan back on to full power. She gave him a smile and then walked back to the front of the classroom. She glanced at the clock and then said, “Hm. I’m conscious of time so it’s probably wise if we get working. Go sit in groups and pairs, or work on your own, and begin to complete your Revision o’ Clocks. Get moving!”
At this exact second, there was a knock on the door. Mrs Carpenter spun like a gunslinger, ready to strike. A Year Seven looked at her with terrified eyes, like a gunslinger who’d just been shot. “Hello!” She exuded, her voice the verbal equivalent of nails pulled down a blackboard. “Can I help you?”
“Mr Phillips… Mr Phillips wants,” the child who looked fresh out of Nursery consulted an orange slip of paper, “So-fee Khan, Freyaa Cartar, Chris Rogers, Stefan Bethany and Aleye Grant?”
Mrs Carpenter managed to decode the kid’s instructions- was it his inability to read or Mr Phillip’s bad handwriting that caused the confusion?- and sighed. “Sophie, Freya, Christopher, Steven and Ali, if you can come back tomorrow for the homework I’d appreciate that dearly.”
“Miss,” Sophie said. Steven turned to pay better attention. “What about my speaking exam?”
“Oh, I had an appointment after lesson so you wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway, I’m afraid.” She said. “We’ll reschedule it when you come back for your homework!”
“Thanks Miss.” Sophie said, a secret smile crossing her face.
The five of them shuffled into the corridor where the sound of that Liverpudlian musical was even louder. They knew what Mr Phillips wanted but they didn’t have any intention to rush; there was no point when one of them could move at the speed of sound and another could freeze time itself. Instead, they leisurely began their walk towards the end of E-Block, Seven Nation Army or some such song playing full blast in Steven’s head.
“You didn’t have to do your speaking exam!” Chris grinned and doubled high fived Sophie.
“I thought you wanted to get it over and done with?” Steven frowned.
“Well yeah but I’m hardly going to complain about not doing it am I?” Sophie replied. “I mean, come on! If she’s going to keep putting it off, who am I to argue?”
“I couldn’t drag it out like that.” Freya shook her head. “I mean, the longer you leave it, the less chance you have to resit.”
“How have you even not done it yet?" Ali asked. "I mean, I apparently did mine late but that was before the holidays!”
“Me and Steven had that French exam before the holidays, don’t you remember? Because Mrs Vault deleted the tapes of our original exam so that she could record the Archers on them or something. That pushed the English back and then, after Steven did his, science block was blown up by a radioactive explosion, or maybe you don’t remember? Miss was hospitalised for a bit and then since she’s got back, she’s been too busy catching up on marking to watch my presentation.”
“It feels like an eternity since I did mine.” Ali said, shaking her head.
“And how many times has Dormammu killed you since then?” Chris laughed.
“What?” Ali frowned.
“It’s from Doctor Strange.” Freya said.
“I didn’t know you’d seen it, Freya. I was going to ask you all if you wanted to go see it with me but I suppose if you’ve already seen it, that’s just more popcorn for the four of us, hey guys?”
“We went to see it with her.” Steven said. “Sorry, Al. We assumed you’d already seen it.”
“Oh.” Her face dropped for a second and then the grin bounced back. “Well, I suppose that’s only fair enough. I am the type of cool person who sees superhero films early, right?”
“Right.” They all grinned.
"I was surprised my mum let me go." Freya shrugged. "Normally she's all like, 'Ooh, Freya, you must stay at home and prepare for your medical exams in ten years time.'"
"Was that meant to be a Welsh accent?" Steven said. "Because it sounded Indian."
"It was meant to be Irish." Freya blushed.
They rounded the L-Block stairs, Steven ducking beneath the door frame, and began their path up to Mr Phillip’s room. “Chris,” Sophie said, “what name did we give the cave?”
“Oh yeah. We were down there the other day fixing up some of the computers for sir,” Chris explained, “and we found all these random pile of stones in different rooms and stuff. Apparently they’re called Cairns so we were thinking we should call it the Cairns Cave.”
“It’s better than ‘Downstairs L16.’” Freya shrugged. “The Cairns Cave it is!”
They crossed the small square of space which marked the entrance to the L-Block IT Rooms. The door to L16 swung open at a simple push and revealed the classroom. Most of it was taken up by computers, a U shape on the perimeter of the room and a solid block jutting out from the centre. At the front of the room was Mr Phillips' desk and a leather chair it looked possible to get lost in. Despite the air conditioning being at full blast, the room was pleasantly cool. Steven hoped Mrs Carpenter would take notes.
The room was empty of students and teachers so Chris closed the door, slid the secret latch to stop anyone from entering whilst they were in the lift and then the five of them walked over to the walk in cupboard. It contained plenty of paper work for a mostly digital subject as well as text books that still saw calculators as the most impressive use of everyday computers. Not since the sixties had the IT department been given enough funding to actually teach.
There was a book on a shelf in the far corner stood up next to a pile of forgotten ITV LittleNibbles. Chris pulled back the cover and revealed a lever secreted inside. "Everyone ready?" He asked.
They all nodded.
"Going down." He grinned and pulled the lever. The cupboard chugged, roared and then began to move down, bringing with it the same uneasy motion as any other lift of its kind.
It didn't take very long for them to reach the bottom of the lift shaft, the wall at the back sliding apart to reveal a rocky tunnel. Little lamps stuck out of the walls at random intervals but cast enough light collectively to illuminate the entire corridor. They walked down in silent pairs, Chris and Freya leading, then Steven and Sophie then Ali bringing up the rear on her own. It was in this order they emerged in the central area they had named the Cairns Cave.
It was an incredible sight, a huge cavern of a room lit by flying saucer lamps hanging from the ceiling and giving off an autumnal glow. There were bookcases built into the rock between other tunnel openings and hand painted signs- probably by Freya where there was incredible calligraphy or Chris where it looked like it belonged on a brochure- declaring where each tunnel led. A bar in the far corner of the room looked out onto a Ping Pong table and a Pool table and opposite that was a lounge in front of a roaring fire which let off its smoke through the vents of Science Block. Directly in the centre of the room, however, was the Super Computer. They'd named her Bessie- Brilliantly Engineered Strategic Super Intelligence Engine- and it was composed of a selection of monitors, keyboards and other pieces of hardware that the IT technicians had thrown away over the years. The server room for the entire school was in the Cairns Cave somewhere and a section of it had now been addressed to monitoring crime reports in case the Gang were needed.
Mr Phillips, already dressed in his Reiteration Man costume- sans mask, looked up at them with a grin. "Ah, I'm glad you could make it. We've got a dire emergency. Gather round Bessie. Come on. Mind the Cairns." There was a huge pile of stones on the raised metal platform Bessie sat upon. "I'm not entirely sure where they've come from but they look like a health and safety risk."
"And us dressing up as superheroes and fighting super villains isn't?" Ali muttered.
"Anyway, let me show you the emergency." Mr Phillips said and tapped at a few of Bessie's keys. The computer whirred and then an image appeared on the biggest screen. "This was handed into the police this morning. It appears to be some sort of tip off but it can't be decoded. Normally, we'd ignore such a thing but there is the residue of gunpowder on the paper. Do you have any idea what it means?"
The image was of an unfolded note written in uniform cursive. There were two paragraphs. It looked like this:
A skeleton of uncluttered mind was called forth by destiny and trudged forward the mind's practicality in the pursuit of the Mother's secrets.
In chamber clean and vat untouched sits
Ample treasure waiting to be taken tonight.
"So someone wants to steal something from the second stanza, don't you think?" Ali said. "Some 'treasure'."
"Yes but what kind of treasure?" Chris asked. "And from where?"
"I don't know about you guys," Steven sighed, "but I feel like I'm back in English. How are you meant to get anything out of this?"
"That's it!" Freya cried. "Sir, can you print off a copy of that?"
Mr Phillips hit the button and a piece of paper with the cursive printed on it rolled out of Bessie. Freya laid it down on the nearest desk and whipped a highlighter and black pen out from her pocket. They all watched in wonder as she highlighted various words and drew black lines coming off with annotations. It took her five minutes- the amount of time you were allocated in an exam to annotate and highlight a poem or text- but she got it eventually. Standing straight, she read her annotations. "It was a riddle. 'The skeleton of uncluttered mind' is another way of saying an organised body or an organisational body. Being called forth by destiny means it has a purpose. An organisational body with a purpose is the definition of an Institute. If it's trudging forwards it's advancing and 'the mind's practicality in the pursuit of the Mother's secrets' suggests the intellectual- 'mind'- and practical- 'practicality'- search- 'pursuit'- for the hidden/unknown information- 'secrets'- as belonging to the 'Mother' who, as always, is the metaphorical personification of Nature, or the natural world. The intellectual and practical search for the unknown elements of the natural world is basically science so the first paragraph refers to the Institute of Advanced Science."
They all stared at her, their mouths hanging wide open until eventually Steven said, "You embedded your quotes wonderfully but next time try to place the quotes inside sentences."
No one questioned this. It was the type of nonsensical Next Steps they were used to getting.
"As you can see," Freya continued, "there's a Volta between the two paragraphs and that represents a dramatic change. What’s the mission statement of the Institute of Advanced Science?”
Sophie, who’d been around on their last open day, grinned. “A dramatic change today spells an everlasting tomorrow.”
“Exactly.” She said. “I don’t know about the second stanza but that’s what the first stanza says, anyway.”
“That is incredible, Freya. Absolutely incredible.” Mr Phillips grinned. “Unfortunately, your powers of annotation probably aren’t enough to convince the police to investigate. We’ll have to go in ourselves.”
Ali and Steven grinned and double high fived. The others glared at them. “What?” Steven asked. “We’re superheroes! It’s not right if we don’t get into costume and investigate eccentric crimes at science fiction super bases every so often.”
“Oh! Hang on!” Chris cried. “The second stanza is in iambic pentameter.”
“No it isn’t.” Sophie said. “The second line has eleven syllables in it.”
“10 and 11 whilst referring to the room. When you went around at the Open Evening, did you see the organisation system, Sophie?” Mr Phillips asked.
“Of course!” Sophie grinned. “There are ten floors so it must be Floor Ten, room Eleven.”
“That’s a hell of a lot of stairs.” Chris pointed out.
“According to my weather app,” Ali said, staring at her phone, “it becomes night in about twenty minutes. Goddamn seasons!”
“You five better changed into your uniforms then. To the Institute of Advanced Science!”

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