Scene 1 – October 14th
Interior Classroom, Early Afternoon
Professor Marigold strode into the room, dropping her shoulder bag onto a nearby desk on the way to her podium as she did every class. “Good afternoon, everyone,” she said, finishing off her soda before tossing it in the trash – today, it was bright red, the same color as her hair.
“Good afternoon, professor,” chorused a few scattered students. Typically I would guess that they were freshmen, but it seemed to be a different handful each time – the only variance in the little start-of-class ritual, along with the color of Marigold’s soda.
It was nice to have some familiarity, as every time we met the class seemed to be on a vastly different topic. It made sense, sure – metahumans were so pervasive in society, with nearly 15% of the population having some sort of superhuman ability, that Metahuman History 202 had to cover an immense range of subjects. But it still bugged me not to know what we would actually be learning about when we came into Professor Marigold’s class. I’ve gotten over my need for strict routines, but I still prefer to know what’s going on and what to expect. But she had never passed out a syllabus, preferring instead to surprise us.
The wonders of having tenure.
“Today,” she said to us, turning to the blackboard and taking a piece of chalk, “we’ll be talking about…” there was a momentary pause while the professor wrote on the board, then she turned back to us with a beaming smile. “Where powers come from.”
I flipped away from the sketch I had been working on while waiting for Marigold to arrive – of a local hero and one of my personal idols, Canaveral – and wrote “Origins of Metahuman Powers” on the top of a new page. I was pretty sure I knew at least the basics of this, but I still paid close attention when she began lecturing.
“Metahumans have been around for as long as human history,” Professor Marigold began. “Although its hard to know the exact numbers, most historians agree that the percentage of those with powers rose slowly over time, eventually reaching the current 15 percent in the late 18th century and holding steady there since then.
“Back in the ancient times, all metahuman powers were believed to be magical. Divine gifts, the result of diligent study and practice, or both. Socrates said ‘those fortunate enough to be touched by the divine are no longer mortal – they are demigods,’ and this belief was quite common for centuries. Metahumans did little to discourage it – many claimed specific gods, and later saints, as their patrons. With claims of divine patronage, metahumans were often found in the upper echelons of society.”
Well, forget thinking I knew anything. I had vaguely known that the ‘magical’ category was the oldest of the three, but I hadn’t known that it had initially been associated with gods.
“This changed in the 16th century with the scientific revolution.” Marigold had drawn a timeline on the board, and the section from Prehistory to the 16th Century bore an extra line reading ‘magical’. “During that time, the belief that science could explain everything began to spread. The church taught that the divine was reserved only for God, and metahuman powers began to be explained by science.
“Of course,” she said with a smirk, “science wasn’t very advanced just yet, so most of their explanations were wrong. Take the example of Havelock Varisco, a metahuman studied by Leonardo da Vinci. Varisco had birdlike wings and weighed barely 40 pounds despite being five foot ten. Da Vinci suggested that he had hollow bones which reduced his weight enough that he could use his wings to fly, but it’s now believed that Varisco actually could control gravity to reduce his weight – hollow bones on their own wouldn’t reduce it nearly so much – and the wings merely allowed him to maneuver. …where was I?”
“The scientific revolution,” I called from my place in the back, continuing to scribble down the barebones of her story about Varisco. You could never tell what Professor Marigold would put on a test, after all.
“Ah yes, thank you Mx. Kaufman,” she said with a nod to me. “So, from that point on,” she drew a line labeled ‘natural’ from the 16th century on to the present, “it was generally believed that powers come from the body. Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to back this up – obviously, metahumans were the next phase of human evolution. After all, the proportion of humans who developed powers had risen over the years, and people with powers often had children with powers too. Those metahumans who didn’t seem to fit with this model were ignored, of course.
“It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the current model was established, by Sir Aaron Atwick.” She wrote ‘1911 – Aaron Atwick’ on the board, and added the ‘magical’ line back in from there through the present. “Atwick proved that there was a biological basis for only 80 percent of metahumans – these were the metahumans whose powers were inheritable. He proposed the existence of a ‘metagene’ which allowed superpowers, but also argued that magic was, as was once believed, real, and that the other 20 percent of metahumans used it in one form or another.”
That I had known. It would have been tricky not to, I supposed – while I didn’t remember much about my mother, who had vanished when I was only seven, she had been a researcher in metahuman science and a big fan of Atwick. She had even had a poster depicting his work on her office door.
“It was a controversial stance, and it was decades before it was accepted,” the professor told us. “Magic had been ignored for almost three centuries, and no major religion was willing to admit its existence at the time either. But with the backing of several major superheroes who vouched for Atwick’s work, agreeing that they used magic,” she wrote their names underneath his – the Doorman, Redeye, and Sister Dawn – “it was eventually adopted by the DMO when it was established as its own department in 1947.
“The model was only revised once, in 1967.” Marigold added one more line to the timeline, this one labeled ‘cosmic’. “As it turns out, only 70 percent of metahumans gain powers from the metagene, not 80. The missing 10 percent gain powers as the result of sufficiently advanced technology – not magic,” she clarified, “but exposure to some kind of technology beyond human understanding. Usually alien relics, thus the name, but it’s since become a catch-all for those whose powers come from any kind of technology – supersuits, power-granting serums, that kind of thing.
“Ms. Kennethson,” she said, turning to our own class’s representative of the 15 percent. “Would you mind sharing with the class where your own powers came from?
Nellie Kennethson blushed as we all looked at her. Like most metahumans, her powers weren’t that impressive – her hair and eyes changed color with her mood. “They’re natural,” she said as they became a pale lilac. “I’ve had them since… puberty, I guess.”
The professor nodded. “Atwick proposed a single metagene,” she said, “but we now know that there are over a hundred genes that can grant superpowers. Some of them activate during puberty, triggered by changing hormones, as Ms. Kennethson’s did. Many others activate during adrenaline rushes. Some are activated by radiation. A few are even active from birth. It’s part of why powers are unlikely to ever reach past 15 percent of the population – only around 15 percent of people are ever in a position where their metagene is activated, even though almost 85 percent of people now possess at least one metagene. Does anyone know if they have a metagene?”
I dutifully raised my hand. “I was tested once,” I said. “I’m one of the 15 percent that don’t have any documented metagenes.”
“I have one that can activate from adrenaline!” volunteered Todd Brickler. “That’s why I got into skydiving – I hoped it would give me powers. No luck yet though.”
“I have three!” Sarah Finely said proudly. “One of them is from radiation, but no one knows what would trigger the other two for sure!”
Professor Marigold held up a hand to forestall anyone else from volunteering. “I hope I’ve made my point – dormant metagenes are more common than active ones. Not to mention the relative scarcity of magical and cosmic powers.
“Now, like most things relating to superpowers, these categories are approximate. There are those who argue that metagenes simply allow one to instinctually channel magic, thus breaking the laws of physics. There are those who suggest that cosmic sources actually just activate dormant metagenes – perhaps unidentified ones, but still the same type of power. There are even arguments that magic is simply sufficiently advanced technology, and that magic should therefore fall under cosmic – or that all three sources should be merged, as there’s little meaningful distinction between them. After all, there are magical metahumans with no need for chants or signs, natural metahumans who must interface with technology, and cosmic metahumans who use hand gestures or mantras to help focus their power.
“Your homework, then…” Marigold paused to let us all groan, grinning, then continued, “your homework is to write a short paper – three to five pages, due next week – explaining why you believe two of the three sources are the same or why you believe they’re different. Everyone got that?” We nodded, and she resumed the lecture, returning to early history to delve into it in more detail.
Scene 2 – October 14th
Interior Classroom, Late Afternoon
“…and that’s why, a century ahead of his time or not, da Vinci was a bit of an idiot,” Professor Marigold finished, then glanced at her watch. “And that’s four o’clock, so I’ll see you all next week.” Typically she strode out of the room at that point, but this time she paused before leaving. “Mx. Kaufman, would you mind staying behind a moment?”
I furrowed my brow as the rest of the class began to leave. What did she want to talk to me about? I didn’t think I had screwed up during the class. I spoke out of turn once, yes, but she had asked where she was in the lecture and hadn’t seemed mad at the time. I had even been engrossed enough in the lecture that I hadn’t doodled in my notebook today, although I usually did. We hadn’t had any homework due to her today, and –
“Quinn,” Marigold said to me with a somewhat sad smile. “I heard about your father. I just wanted to express my sympathies.”
“Oh,” I blinked up at her, then laughed, running a hand through my dark, curly hair. “Thank you, professor, but he’s fine.”
She raised an eyebrow. “He’s in the hospital again, isn’t he? I know I’m not incredibly close to David, but he is a co-worker, and I don’t think the inter-departmental gossip is that inaccurate.”
I shrugged dismissively, starting to pack up my things. “I mean, yeah, he’s in the hospital again, but, well… it happens from time to time. Chronic illnesses will do that to you.”
“You’re not worried?”
“Not especially,” I told her. “Dad’s beaten it back before and he’ll do it again. It’s not even the worst relapse he’s had. He’ll be out in a few days, I’m sure.”
She examined my face, obviously still concerned, so I made sure to smile reassuringly. I didn’t know what she was so worried about – Dad had been in and out of the hospital for years. This week’s relapse wasn’t anything new. “Well, if you’re sure,” she finally said. “Still, please pass on my sympathies to him. And if you need an extension on that paper, just ask.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ve got it covered, professor. I was able to keep up in your class during midterms for Organic Chemistry and Abnormal Anatomy, I think I can handle one week without my dad to interrupt me when I’m doing homework,” I joked. “I’ll be fine.”