Marian luxuriated in her shower, letting warm water from the three fixed nozzles pour over her, and using the spray massage to reach where they didn't. The plumber had finished installing the special shower stall three days earlier, and just in time; the temperature had dropped below freezing the night before and the day was still quite cool. Even though most Gifted felt environmental extremes less than normals, and Marian's bulk generally meant that she had trouble keeping cool, bathing outside in this weather was more than she was willing to put up with.
The reason for her preparation was the conference of Gifted being held in the Center that afternoon. Marian was very nervous about the meeting. It would be the first time she had been in such a crowd since she had been changed by the Gifting.
Finally having enough, she turned off the water and began the long process of drying herself. The hair on her head was little problem, but the coat on her equine portion was winter thick, and the hair in her tail was long and hard to reach. Fortunately, a combination of toweling and blow-drying usually did the job. Marian dried as well as she could with towels in the oversized shower stall to keep water off the bathroom floor, but for safety's sake she stepped out before using the dryer.
She was nearly finished when she heard someone knocking. Muttering under her breath, she grabbed a towel and hurried toward the door. She wrapped the towel around her torso as she went, not realizing until then that it was soaking wet. The drips weren't important; like the other quarters here at the Center, Marian's was a converted office, and had a tile floor. She hated getting wet again, however. Already irritated, she yanked the door open and found Adamant.
"Pinky's having trouble with an obnoxious reporter and sent me to get your help." Adamant had started a bit at seeing her in just a towel, and now was grinning. "He wants to know about the meeting and is getting aggressive."
"Why me, when you were handy?" snapped Marian, angry at being interrupted over something that shouldn't have concerned her.
"Hey, my way of dealing with guys like that is to call them at three in the morning for the next fifty years," he replied, shrugging. "Besides, you're more imposing than Pinky and me put together."
That made sense. With most of the regular inhabitants of the building out buying supplies for the conference, Marian was probably the best remaining choice for bouncer.
"All right, hang on a minute while I get dressed."
"Better hurry," said Adamant, as Marian closed the door.
She threw the towel into the bathroom, where it struck the far wall with a satisfying splat, and yanked a t-shirt out of her top drawer. She pulled the shirt on as she moved back to the door, fighting to drag the fabric over her damp skin and nearly falling when she slipped in a wet spot. None of this helped her mood. Adamant stared at Marian as she came out of her room. Knowing how much she liked to dress well, he was surprised that she would be this casual, even in a minor emergency.
"Let's go," snapped Marian, pushing past him to the stairs.
"I didn't know you went in for wet t-shirts!" Adamant called after her. Either she didn't hear him, or decided to ignore the comment.
She thundered down the ramps, Adamant catching up by the simple expedient of vaulting over each rail to the flight below. As Marian entered the lobby, she saw Pinky chasing a man, presumably the reporter, who was running toward Mr. San Savant's office. That could cause trouble. Mr. San Savant hated to have his meditation period interrupted.
"Hey, stop!" Marian called, putting her oversized lungs and vocal cords to good use.
The man ignored her, yanking the office door open. He froze as he saw what was inside. So did Pinky, Marian and Adamant.
Instead of the small, simply furnished room which should have been there, the door opened onto a dimensionless black void. Inside, about where the desk was supposed to be, was Mr. San Savant. He was floating in lotus position, softly glowing, his eyes closed.
The reporter stared for a long moment, then shut the door and leaned weakly against it.
"I think I'll make an appointment."
Marian moved up beside the man, and he finally noticed her.
"This is private property," she told him, her voice as low as it would comfortably go, and in the same tone she had once used on an older boy she had caught bullying one of her sons. "Either leave or get thrown out. And you don't want to know how far I can throw you."
The reporter meekly left, but kept glancing back at Marian as he walked toward the door.
"Well, I'm glad that's over," said Marian, raising the pitch of her voice back to the range she preferred.
Pinky was staring at her.
"Did you know your shirt says 'Four On The Floor'?"
Marian checked her shirt, then glared at Adamant, who was busy looking completely innocent. Marian walked over, grabbed him by the hair and lifted him to her eye level.
"I don't know how you did it," she told him, voice again very low. "I don't want to know. Don't do it again."
She dropped him and stomped off, not on easy feat for a centaur.
"Considering how hard it is to find things in her size," mused Pinky, "you'd think she'd be more grateful."
"You did it!" Adamant yelped, in sudden realization. "You've got to tell her! She'll never believe me!"
Pinky just smiled and returned to her desk.
The first guests hadn't even arrived yet, and already Marian was nervous. Sure, most of them would be Gifted, and some of them would have received physical changes nearly as great as Marian's own. She was still uncertain about mingling with so many strangers at once.
"One side!" announced Sturdy, as he carried a pair of beer kegs behind the refreshment table. For him, they weren't very heavy, but they were an awkward load. Sturdy, real name Martin Grant, stood nearly seven feet tall and was heavy in proportion. "You should have let me carry those," she told him. Sturdy was far stronger than Marian, but her larger size and four-legged stability made her more suitable for some tasks.
The strongman grinned at Marian, as he bedded the kegs in tubs of ice.
"You'll ruin your dress."
Normally, Marian only clothed her human portion, but for the party she had modified an elegant black dress to her form. The dress was draped over her equine back and hung down in front of her forelegs. It was too short, of course, but that kept her from stepping on it. Marian turned from the drink table to watch as Fleet, moving slowly for a change, came in with a stack of soft drink cases.
San Savant was actually in charge, but he had shown a surprising lack of talent when it came to organizing the incidentals for the meeting, so Flow and Marian had volunteered to arrange for refreshments. They had even managed to get advance copies of the next issue of Gift Rap by fax.
Marian heard someone whistling "Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)" and turned to find Adamant watching her.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"That's how I meant it," he replied, grinning.
A tall, heavy man with dark grey wings sprouting from his back came walking in the side door.
"Ah!," said San Savant, "the Lexington contingent has arrived."
The man wore a mask, and in public went by the name Shadow Hawk. The wings were not permanent; like many other Gifted he could alter his body to a limited extent. In this case, he could produce the wings when he wanted them, then retract them later. Behind him came several other people, many of them masked or otherwise concealing their identities. One member of the group was a small woman with feline features, including fur, pointed ears, slit pupils and a real, live tail. One man had an assault rifle slung over his shoulder and was wearing camouflage clothing and makeup. The last two through the door were both tall, thin, bearded men wearing glasses; one had black hair and the other brown. These two were talking in an animated fashion about something which Marian could make neither heads nor tails of.
"We're here!" cried one of the masked men. "Break out the food and the booze!"
Some of the others in the group gave him a dark look. San Savant knew most of these people already. He welcomed them by name and told them to make themselves at home, then hurried off to greet the next arrivals, just coming in.
Half an hour later, the meeting was in full swing. Donald Criswold, the primary financial backer of the Center for Gifted Research, had given the opening address, and the next three speakers had been to the podium and back. Refreshments were being served constantly but quietly. Marian, standing behind the drink table, found that her height and reach made her very handy at the job.
She also found the talks interesting. Chuck, the current speaker, was the brown haired man from the Lexington group. He had conducted a detailed statistical evaluation of the Gifting, and established some tentative rules for the occurrence.
The majority of Gifts had been received in a broad, curving band roughly two hundred miles wide, stretching across the United States from Eastern Texas to Virginia. On either side of this band the number of Gifts dropped off sharply. The center of the curve was at the island in the Florida Keys where the mysterious explosion had occurred at the moment of the Gifting.
Something had apparently expanded outward from the island, traveling for several hundred miles, occasionally Gifting someone; then it had suddenly begun Gifting people at a vastly greater rate. Where there were few people, such as on the ocean and in eastern Mexico, the band was displaced further out from the center and was broader. The portion headed due south had passed over Central America, then moved on into the Antarctic, crossed the pole and continued Northward, to drop a scattering of Gifts in India, China and the Soviet Union. Cuba, being so close to the island, had received almost no Gifts.
More surprising was Chuck's statement that his study had shown there were a total of 4,328 Gifted in the world. Marian had previously known of only a few more than three hundred.
"The majority of these people may not know that they are Gifted," Chuck explained. "We keep hearing of someone discovering that they have powers. We can assume that they were Gifted at the same time as the rest, but only recently learned about their new abilities."
The next speaker was the Center's own physician, Dr. William Swenson. He gave a short outline on the physical changes experienced by the majority of the Gifted, and some of the more common abilities. Most of this Marian already knew; Gifted healed completely from any non-lethal injury, and had immunity to diseases and an increased tolerance of damage. Any Gifted person who had previously worn glasses could now see perfectly, with or without them, after only a few seconds of adjustment.
"Roughly ten percent of the Gifted receive a permanent physical change. Many of these changes would not be noticeable to anyone who had not known the person before. However, just over half of these changes make the person appear unusual."
After Dr. Swenson's talk, San Savant called an intermission. Marian was relieved from her duties by a volunteer from the guests, and decided to mingle. She wandered around the lobby, catching snatches of conversation.
"...boss likes my new abilities, for the most part, but..."
"...shot him several times and he just laughed..."
"...having a shape shifter for a lover makes life very interesting..."
Now that was a bit of information Marian filed away for future reference.
"...was going to call himself Mr. Transistor, then realized that would make him a son of a switch."
This was from the tall, dark-haired man from Lexington, a fellow named Red.
"...nearly crashed into an oak tree the first time..."
"...won the Amazing Randi's award within two weeks of the Gifting..."
Marian was pleased to note that few people gave her more than a passing glance. As she wandered back to the beverage table, however, she found Red there ahead of her, and noticed that he kept looking at her with a thoughtful expression on his face.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Uh, no," he replied, laughing in embarrassment. "Just professional curiosity. I have a black belt and was wondering how a person might go about throwing a centaur."
Well, at least it was an original answer.
"Why do they call you Red? Is it because of your Gift?"
"Oh, I'm not Gifted," he said, smiling. "Can't you tell? The Gifted do have certain presents about them."
"I'm going to have to introduce you to Ed Wilson," she told Red. "Better known as Adamant, the Indestructible Man."
"I think I'm up to the challenge. After all, I am armor punetrating."
Marian resumed mingling, occasionally stopping to chat with someone she knew. The meeting was going well, and being with so many people was easier than she had thought.
As she looked around the room, though, Marian spotted a potential trouble situation. Muscleman had the Wizard cornered, and the older man's famous sense of humor was obviously becoming strained.
"I have received several of the best Gifts," the strongman bragged. "I can leap an eighth of a mile, hold my breath for hours and even artillery shells can't break my skin!" It was Muscleman's usual spiel, worn thin by endless repetition.
"Ah, yes," said the Wizard, rallying, "but can you work magic?"
"Magic?" Muscleman frowned.
"Here's a simple test," said the Wizard. "Say 'Ibble Bibble Bop.'"
The frown deepened. "Ibble Bibble Bop?"
Muscleman vanished with the sound of a very large balloon breaking.
"Where did you send him?" asked Marian.
"The Red Sea." The Wizard smiled contentedly. "The bottom of the Red Sea."
Marian was standing on the lawn behind the Center, looking out at the parking lot. After she had left Red with Adamant, the crowd had suddenly gotten to her. There were just too many people in the room, and she needed some time alone. As Red would have put it, she was tired of being the centaur of attention. Besides, her neck was sore from twisting around to make sure no one was in her way; she constantly worried about stepping on someone. She was beginning to feel better, now, and was considering going back inside, when she heard voices, approaching from around the building.
Two elderly men came walking along the driveway. One was short and grizzled, the other tall and thin, with black hair. They reminded Marian of George Burns and Fred Astaire, except that the tall one was carrying a large convertible.
"You should get rid of that piece of junk," said the short one. "Because of you, we're late."
"This car is a classic!"
"Yeah, a classic mistake. If its such a collector's item, sell it and use the money to buy one of those Japanese compacts."
"You wouldn't know a fine automobile if it ran over you."
The pair continued bickering as the tall one put the car carefully down, taking two parking spaces, then turned to enter the building. It was then that they noticed Marian.
"Excuse me, young lady," said the tall one, recovering first. "Is this where the Gifted conference is being held?"
"Derek, use your brain for once," snapped the short one. "You ask someone looking like that if this is where there are Gifted. Sheesh."
"It was a politeness question, not an information question," countered the tall one. "Although I shouldn't be surprised that you wouldn't know anything about politeness."
"You must be Heckle and Jibe," Marian said quickly, hoping to interrupt another exchange.
"Well, if we must, I suppose we'll just have to make the best of it," said the short one.
These were a pair of famous retired actors, turned activists for the elderly. Since the Gifting, they had also included promoting Gifted rights in their interests. Some of their actions of late had been far from legal, but they were much respected and admired, by Gifted and normal alike.
"So, are we going to stand out here all night?" asked the short one in a gruff voice.
Laughing, Marian accompanied the two old Vaudevillians inside.
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith,
who can be reached at: email@example.com. Please contact the author for
permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.