Note: This story is set before the fall of the Soviet Union.
It was a bright Saturday morning, the sort of late fall day when most people would have been glad for an excuse to go outside. Marian, however, had reception duty. The Center for Gifted Research was open all day, every day, by necessity. She therefore lay behind the lobby desk with her elbows propped on its top, reading a book, her radio softly playing rock music. It wasn't as if she had much else to do; given her dislike for public exposure since her transformation into a centaur, she tended to stay at the Center most of the time, anyway.
Marian suddenly caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. She looked up to see a young woman, surrounded by a yellow glow, push the front door open and fly in. She went from entrance to reception desk without touching the floor. There she touched down, the glow diminishing.
"Hi, Blackbird," said Marian, smiling as she put her book down.
"I need to see San Savant about a problem I'm having with the Russians from when I took a shortcut over their country last week even though I went as high as I could and..."
"I'm sorry, Mr. San Savant is out right now." Marian hated to interrupt, but it was either that or listen to a five minute sentence. "What is your problem?"
The young woman fidgeted, then emitted another burst of words.
"The Russians have assigned this guy, one of their Gifted, to harass me because I flew over their country and he keeps popping in and yelling at me and shooting off sparks..."
Blackbird, real name Shirley Strider, claimed to be twenty-one, but in Marian's judgement was closer to eighteen. She was a free spirit, using her Gift to tour the world. She was something of a celebrity, and seemed to feel that anything which infringed on her free passage to go wherever she wanted to go was ridiculous.
"... fellow finds me wherever I am and keeps interrupting me and I can't get any peace and..."
Right on cue, a thin, ragged looking young man in Russian military uniform appeared in the lobby, accompanied by a window-rattling thunderclap. Blackbird's aura immediately brightened and pulled more tightly around her. The stranger yelled "Decadent Imperialist Swine!" and extended his right hand. A fat blue spark jumped from his fingers and spent itself on Blackbird's shields.
"See what I mean?" she cried, shaking her fists up and down in childish rage.
Marian had jumped to her feet at the attack, and now the Russian was staring open-mouthed at her, muttering something in his native tongue. Apparently, he had never seen a centaur before.
"He doesn't understand a word of English," complained Blackbird. "He just parrots these phrases and zaps me even though I have tried over and over to get him to stop and I can't see what he has against me that he could be so mean."
An office door banged open and Fleet blurred into the room. Seeing no sign of an ongoing battle, he whipped to a stop beside Marian.
Before anyone could answer, the door to the stairs was pushed open by a feline muzzle. After taking a moment to examine the scene, a cheetah squeezed through and trotted over to join the others. Flow sat down, then unfolded into her human form.
At each arrival, the Russian's eyes had grown wider, until Marian wondered if his Gift included the ability to extend them from their sockets. Blackbird took advantage of her tormenter's confusion to explain the situation to the newcomers.
"Poor fellow," said Fleet, when the young Gifted woman had finished. "I almost feel sorry for him. I doubt he's seen much of the world, and certainly nothing like Flow, Marian and me."
"By the way," said Blackbird "don't touch him because he carries a hefty electrical charge and it hurt me when I tried to grab him and shake some sense into him yesterday and get a civil reply from him..."
"Where's Adamant when we need him," muttered Flow.
Fleet and Flow began discussing how to deal with the problem, while Blackbird continued nonstop. The problem, meanwhile, had regained his composure and was talking loudly to them in Russian. Marian decided that enough was enough.
"Quiet!" Since Marian was louder than any two of the rest of them combined, she got it.
"You!" she said, crooking a finger at the Russian. "Come here!"
He folded his arms defiantly across his chest and stood where he was.
"American Capitalist Dog!"
Marian was at a loss. It would be hours before San Savant returned and she didn't know anyone else who might be able to help.
"Imperialist Pig Swine!" said the Russian, just to fill the silence.
"Does anyone in the Center speak Russian?" asked Marian in desperation.
With soft "whump" and a strong smell of brimstone, the Wizard suddenly appeared in a cloud of yellow smoke, not three feet from the stranger. The Russian jumped back in alarm and raised his hands. He froze in confusion as he realized that he was about to zap an elderly man wearing an ankle-length cloak and a tall, conical cap, both dark blue and sprinkled with glittering stars of gold and silver. The Russian's expression changed to one of total disbelief.
"I say," remarked the Wizard, in his affected British accent, "has the party started already?"
"It's not a party, and it's tomorrow," said Marian, "but you may be able to help us with a problem."
She nodded to Blackbird, who explained the situation yet again. The Wizard looked thoughtfully at the bedraggled stranger for a few moments, then approached him in a friendly manner.
"Come now, my good fellow, surely we can arrive at some sort of reasonable compromise?"
"He doesn't understand English," said Fleet.
"Oh, he'll understand me," said the Wizard, casually.
"Capitalist American Pig!" said the Russian.
"I'm afraid you're wrong there, old man," the Wizard countered, eyes twinkling. "I have been a card carrying member of the American Communist Party since 1938. I was black listed by McCarthy and even had a personal confrontation with Nixon."
The Russian opened his mouth to spout another insult. The Wizard made a gesture with his right hand. The stranger's eyes glazed over and his face went slack.
"You don't know where Blackbird is."
The Russian numbly repeated this in his own tongue.
"You will not remember what happened here."
This, too, was echoed.
"You will begin to privately question what your superiors tell you," said the Wizard, his eyes twinkling madly. There was more Russian in reply. "You may go now."
The Russian vanished.
"Oh, wow, thanks," said Blackbird. "That was really wild!"
"It won't last, I'm afraid," said the Wizard. "The spell will wear off in a few days. However, that should buy you some time to come up with a longer term solution."
He turned to Marian.
"Now, about that party..."
"It's not a party," said Marian, more firmly this time. "It's a conference for Gifted and those Normals Associated with them. It starts here at five, local time. Food and drink will be served, but you're welcome to bring something."
The Wizard smiled, bowed and vanished. Blackbird thanked them and floated out through the front door and then straight up. An outraged scream was heard from the second floor.
"That sounded like Bodystocking," said Flow, grinning. "I better go explain what happened."
She shifted into a cougar and ran off.
Marian lay back down, stretched her human torso out across the desk and folded her arms over her head.
"It's like working in Toon Town," she lamented, voice muffled.
"At least Flaming Sword wasn't here," said Fleet, grinning.
Marian had to smile at that, although it certainly hadn't been funny at the time. A disturbed Gifted man, described as "crazy but harmless" by the authorities, had been sent to the Center by a sanitarium. Upon seeing Pinky, he had shoved his two attendants aside, materialized a long sword of fire, and then proceeded to chase the receptionist around the lobby, waving the sword over his head and screaming "No prisoners!" It had taken Sturdy, Fleet and Adamant to corral him.
"My strength and speed are superhuman," said Marian, raising her head. "I can lift a small car and almost out-run one. But some of the Gifted make me feel about as effective as a sideshow freak."
"I know what you mean," Fleet replied. "A good sports car can go faster than me, and for longer. Still, it's not what you have that counts, but how you use it."
"Ancient Oriental philosophy?"
That brought a smile from him. Fleet's ancestry may have been pure Chinese, but his upbringing was pure American.
"Look, Muscle Man spends his time on talk shows, celebrity gatherings and hobnobbing with big-name people, just so he can show off his strength and pretend he's someone important. The Wizard travels the world looking for parties. Kid Power is trying to get his own TV show. Even Casey, for all his environmental activism, has done little to directly help people."
Fleet tapped a finger on the desk.
"We help people," he said, emphasizing it. "Those of us here at the Center have done a lot to aid others, both Gifted and normal. Think of what we have done for Bodystocking, the Monster, and all the rest."
Marian nodded. There was a long, thoughtful silence between them. Then Fleet began to chuckle.
"What?" asked Marian.
"I just had a thought," said Fleet, grinning broadly. "You can do something that none of the rest of us can."
"And what might that be?"
"Go out in public with no clothes on below the waist."
Marian shook her head.
"You've been hanging around Adamant too much."
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith,
who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact the author for
permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.