This story is on a temporary hold. Just taking a month or two off from it to write some other things. I tend to come around to story ideas after I set them down for a bit. I also want to go back to having most of a story done before posting it. Thanks for reading.
A few hours later, Oz dropped Willow off at her house. The two had sat in comfortable silence on the trip, not uncommon for the musician but it left him concerned about the young mentalist.
As she shut the door of the van, he asked through the open window. “Are you ok?”
The redhead looked up, startled out of her thoughts. “Oh, yeah. Just a lot on my mind. I can’t wait to try some of the stuff you’ve been talking about.” She gave a small wave and turned away, her hair swishing after her. Oz shrugged and continued to his house.
Willow blew out the breath she had been holding as she heard the van start away. She had noticed that both Oz himself and Jean Gray’s memories had espoused meditation as a means of learning discipline and control. And she was feeling a need for both. She perfunctorily ran through the routine with her parents home. Her withdrawn attitude was noticed but attributed by Shelia Rosenberg to ‘teenage feelings of displacement and angst.’ Having eaten and showered, Willow lit a candle in her room and sat cross-legged on her bed.
Focusing on her breathing, in and out slowly, she allowed her conscious mind free reign to flit from thought to thought. The ‘buzzing’ of the surrounding minds was present as always, but she ignored it, sinking deeper into an altered mental state. Slowly her thoughts narrowed as she relaxed, her consciousness expanding to contact unused recesses in her mind and memory.
Her conscious mind constructed a representation of her entire being, a house with vast airy halls lit by full-length stained glass windows and cool stone floors. Her footsteps echoed as her heels clicked on the hard surface. Her movements were slow, as though she were floating in water, but not in that they were precise and there was no resistance. The hallways had oak doors on their inner walls, each of which was labeled in an unorganized script which she could nevertheless understand.
The manner in which they were labeled also held hints as to their content, with early childhood memories being identified by crayon markings, then later ones being printed in block letters reminiscent of books written to enable reading comprehension. She walked further, with the light taking on a warmer quality as she moved more to the present.
Her first encounter with a computer, in which she truly
understood its’ purpose and function. She had been fascinated with the calculating machine, which responded only to pure and concise thoughts. Unlike judgmental human beings, the machines never cared about her clothes or her awkwardness with her peers. The memories concerning her first forays into that world were guarded with a steel door and a keypad, with a small display on the door itself scrolling code. Once again, though it was not in any language she knew, she could understand the rapidly oscillating numbers and digits easily.
The hallway forked, with the right fork moving into a softer aspect, with the hall coming in closer, its’ floor covered in lush carpet and walls of cherry paneling. She could smell a hint of a spring breeze from an open window and almost moved into it without thinking. She caught her self, though she knew she would be moving there in a moment. Instead she looked down the left hall.
This one was very different, utilitarian and sectioned by metal bulkheads. Its’ thin carpet looked worn but functional. Painted stripes and numerals showed those who would occupy these passageways where they were, with safety warnings and devices stored in alcoves at regular intervals. Unintelligible speech emanated from speakers mounted in the roof, though she again knew the contents of what was being said. She turned away from the starkly lit tunnel with its’ cold metal walls and back to the more pleasant stone and glass. At the end of this corridor was an ornate door, a circle rather than a rectangle, with many symbols and shapes inscribed on its’ copper surface. Will extended her hand, feeling the thrum
of restrained power beyond, before touching it. In a flash she was somewhere else entirely.
The White Hot Room, or at least her mind’s representation of it. Inside sat Jean Gray, X-man and the most powerful psychic in her world. Willow took a trembling breath before continuing on to the chair opposite the older woman. A steaming pot of tea sat on the small cherry wood table between the two overstuffed high-back chairs.
“Welcome Willow. I am glad to see you here.”
Willow nodded, swallowing the lump in her throat. “I didn’t intend to come. I had no idea this… place was here.”
Her host nodded, pouring her guest a cup of tea. “Sugar, Lemon?”
“Two please,” the girl answered absently.
Two sugar cubes floated from the bowl and into the porcelain cup, the contents stirring without a spoon. When it stopped Willow took the beverage, blowing on it before taking a sip. “It’s good.” She exclaimed, taking another before setting the cup back on its matching saucer.
Soothed by the tea and her hosts’ manner, she settled back into the chair.
“Why-How am I here? I thought you were -”
“Gone,” the woman questioned. “I am. This place is where you keep my memories. I am a simulacrum you have generated from those memories to act as a guide.”
Wide eyed, she blurted “I made you up?!”
“Unconsciously, yes. I am the context that you are missing for Jean Gray’s memories. I am how your mind has chosen to organize them. And I can help you.”
Willow bit her lip, striving to hold her thought in until she understood rather than dissolving into an incoherent stringing-together of never ending questions. She held still for several moments, then spoke.
“Help me with what?”
She smiled and waved her hand. Over the table an image formed. It was her trial run through the Simulation Room. Though she had known it was only a training exercise, Willow had still been frightened. She cowered behind the first strong point, then resolutely strode out to face the guns. The image froze with a close up of her pale face, her jaw set with determination.
“Here. You knew WHAT to do, but you lacked the how. Had you even half the power Jean had at your age you could have jammed that gun with little thought. But you were thinking of tearing it out of its mounting, something Marvel Girl would have been hard-pressed to do.”
“I couldn’t do either,” she mumbled morosely.
“No, you couldn’t. When you tried to overpower it, you got discouraged. You reacted instinctively to bat the gun, to spoil its’ aim. But after that, you were mostly trying to keep out of its’ way. Your fear of failing again kept you from trying.” The X-man frowned.
“That’s not something you got from Jean and I know you don’t usually give up that easy. So it had to be something else keeping you from rising up and-”
Willow stood, stamping her foot and throwing her hands up. “I was embarrassed, ok. The guys are SO much better than I am. And you were-you are- well you’re powerful. And I can barely-”
She plopped back into the chair, her arms tucked in tight across her body. Jean looked at her quizzically.
“Your TK and telepathy are developed just like muscles, with hard work and repetition. I think that maybe, because you’re smart, you assumed that would translate to being able to use those powers effectively as soon as you put your mind to it. That’s not the case.”
A small sniffle issued from the curtain of red hair concealing the girls’ face. Jean scowled.
“And that’s not the answer either. Where’s that famous Willow ‘Resolve Face’? That’s what you need. I can give you some ideas to increase your strength a bit, but it’s your new friend Oz who will be of real help. A strong and robust program, repetitious and BORING, to build up the ’muscle’ behind that power. You may have to drop a class or two to free up the time, but if you want to be in this fight-”
Willow’s head snapped up, her eyes sparkling as she nodded. This image of resolve was ruined somewhat by her sniffling, but Jean was satisfied. A box of tissues made its way to the girl, who took one gratefully.
An image returned to the position above the table, this time of a garden. “Now Willow, in the beginning of my time with Professor Xavier…”
Two weeks later, on a Saturday, Willow spoke to Oz regarding another run at his simulator. She had been working hard on her control and power, with exercises he and she had designed together. He reflected that the her first experience in the Combat Simulation Room had been rather negative, she had responded beautifully. She showed improvement almost daily and he was not surprised that she felt ready to try again.
He was tempted to add another wrinkle, something he had been working on to liven up the simulator, but he waited instead altering the room slightly so as not to give an unfair advantage to the trainee. She had changed her clothes as well, a pair of light green Capri's and a yellow soccer jersey. She gave a nod to the control room, and a wave to the two young men standing behind him as her programmed the room. Xander and Jesse waved back, with Jesse pointing his forefinger and thumb in the timeless pantomime of a six-shooter. She smiled as the countdown ran to zero.
Just as the light went from yellow to red, she bolted out of the alcove, down low and sliding like a hitter into home, her feet stopping her at the base of a short section of brick wall as the first rounds from the left gun flew over her head. This gun was mounted in the top left corner, with the other mounted at almost chest high, to the right of the target and just peeking over a pile of rocks.
Willow eyed the rocks speculatively as she crouched out of sight of the left gun. One wiggled under her stare, but it held its place.
“He’s attached them all together somehow.” Making the entire structure to heavy to move without taking the time to break it down. No doubt Xander would blast through it, but she was more limited. She ducked into a tighter ball as the left gun swung around, sending paintballs chattering at her position in an effort to discourage her. She ignored it as she planned her next move, popping up to see that only a minute had passed. So slow
That helped her understand the tales her grandfather had told, of time slowing down when he was under fire, only her life wasn’t in danger. Only my pride.
With a shout, she stood and dashed towards the left gun while a mailbox flew at the right one. Its’ targeting sensors registered a fast moving object and swiveled to paint it with orange fluorescent paint before returning to the previous target. Willow now stood under the left gun, which had also briefly tracked her distraction before depressing to its’ maximum down-looking range. As she had thought, it couldn’t get low enough as she stood next to the wall it was mounted on.
The right gun again swung to the mailbox, which had now burst into smoke. Jesse grinned at the purple smoking box. “Smoke bomb., with a sparkler for heat. “
Xander nodded as the guns confused thermal imager threw it off track again, long enough for Willow to JUMP up to the left guns’ large mounting bracket, aided considerably by her projection of a telekinetic ledge ‘stuck’ to the wall. Willow hung in the air for a split second, long enough to pull the hydraulic lines out of the gun’s motor. The fluid squirted the girl in the face, which caused her to lose concentration. She fell abruptly, but her fall was arrested somewhat by skimming the wall. She fell to her bruised butt and quickly rolled to a shallow trench a few feet away.
The right gun tracked her path, stitching the dirt floor with orange as she moved. It could not direct fire on her position and so stopped firing for a moment. The simulation computer had some options and ran through a dozen in an eye blink. But Willow Rosenberg had started with a basic plan, and now she had all she needed to implement it.
The hydraulic fluid from the left gun had pooled and congealed in the sandy dirt below, With a short flick of her fingers, the mentalist flung the sloppy mass of sand and oil at the right gun, steering it unerringly to its’ targeting pod. The gun pitifully swung about on its axis, futilely trying to fling it off. Willow shrieked as she ran for the finish at just over 2 minutes and 12 seconds.
“Simulation Ended. Winner: Willow Rosenberg. Two Minutes and Twelve Seconds.”
The clapping was quite loud over the hiss of busted hydraulic lines, both Jesse and Xander whooped it up at her fabulous showing. Even Oz was pleased, turning up a corner of his mouth ever so slightly. He left it to Jesse and Xander to exuberantly congratulate the redhead, moving to express his own opinion after they trio had calmed themselves.
“Congratulations Willow. I knew you could do it.” She ducked her head, suddenly shy at praise from her newest friend. The three volunteered to help Oz clean up, but he waved it off. “I’ll get to it later, I have something else I want to show you guys.”
He moved to the lift after inputting a few commands into its’ new console. Xander was curious about the new interface, it looked considerably more sophisticated than the original, but he also wanted to see what Oz had to show them.
The lift rose to the first floor and all four stepped off, following Oz to the left corner. They found a section of the building had been cordoned off, with two additional walls being constructed. Oz stepped through the doorway and waved them inside.
He removed a small box from his long coat pocket and pressed a button. As they looked about each noted that the floor and ceiling had been covered with silvery bands of metal crisscrossing them. From a small alcove a device floated. Oz turned to watch the faces of his friends as his newest creation floated out. Most settled for stunned silence, with only Willow forming sounds as her jaw worked.
“This is Dexter. Say ‘Hello’ Dexter.”
The device, with a silvery rotating saucer on top and bottom, was whisper quiet as it floated. It had a human shape, almost a mannequin between them, with wires and hoses attached to it through the back. In place of a head it had a small flat screen with a caricature of a human face animated with just enough pixels to allow a semblance of human interaction. The ‘mouth’ moved as a speaker ‘spoke’ the word “Hello.” It raised an arm, the hand flicking to give a wave. Willow uttered a soft ’Wow’ at its fine movement, a degree of motion that even the most advanced robotics researchers were having trouble with.
Dexter moved to the middle of the room. “Should I proceed with the demonstration sir?” The speech was not as smooth or refined as human speech, but was a far cry from the stilted and artificial sounds generated from a program piecing together speech from canned human voices.
Oz spoke to the machine. “Sure Dexter. Ready when you are.” Machinery whirred and the mannequin was moved down off its’ support platform to stand on its’ feet. The group could see that it was still connected to the machine by a series of hoses and wires but it gave the appearance of walking upright. It took a few steps forward then back, its’ arms engaged in a full range of motion, more so than human, as they rotated a full 360 degrees. Even the head tilted from one side to the other, before a shout issued from the speaker in the chest.
“Kiyah!,” it sounded as the arms moved into a guard position, its’ hands open. With a near-silent whir it began a series of strikes, its’ hands flashing down and around in quick and precise movements. The fingers curled into fists, or flattened to present a block equally well. The support platform, floating above the metal strips, found no difficulty in moving the body as required.
The legs were also exercised, with a snap kick to chest height, then a roundhouse with the other leg as the first touched the floor.
As it moved through a routine, Oz spoke to the astounded fighters. “It’s levitated magnetically from the strips. Haven’t quite gotten up to anti-gravity yet. Dexter has about 85 to 90 percent of the normal human movement range. He can’t do a shoulder roll on the ground and he won’t be able to help you practice many throws, but other than that, he’s a walking, talking practice dummy.”
As Dexter completed his routine, the machine bowed to the group and the dummy was retracted into the platform. The flabbergasted students all questioned Oz at once.
“What was that?”
“How does that thing work!?”
“Dexter? What kind of name is that?”
“Is it going to go all Skynet on us?”
“Can it do windows?”
The last caused a sudden stop in the conversation, with all eyes on Xander, who sheepishly asked, ”What?”
Oz explained that he knew that the team needed a way to work on their hand to hand skills versus vampires, who were faster and stronger than normal humans. And while they could make up for that with training and their powers, if they didn’t practice against a target with the same speed and power, they might be at a disadvantage. And, he also pointed out, it had given him an excuse to put some of his engineering concepts into practice.
“Ok Oz. That sounds reasonable,” Jesse said slowly. “But I’m getting the feeling that a lot of what you’re doing is like an iceberg..” He continued the thought aloud as the teen raised an eyebrow.
“We’re only seeing about ten percent of what you do, the rest is below the waterline. Is that about right?”
Oz stood under their intensely curios stares for a moment before nodding. “About that. I’m doing some investing, taking on some technical problem solving, building equipment. If you guys ever feel like you need to know everything, you can log into the computer system upstairs and search to your heart’s content.”
Normally so stoic and brief, Oz spoke with just a smidgen of heat, the equivalent to an out-and out- screaming tantrum from anyone else. Jesse quickly threw up his hands, waving his concerns away. “It’s not that we don’t trust you Oz, far from it. I just don’t want you to feel that we don’t value what you’re doing. This place, the simulator, it’s all amazing. And I know it must be costing a lot, but you’ve never hinted at how much.”
Xander stood beside his friend, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Yeah Oz. You have a life to live. You don’t have to dedicate yourself to this and neither do we. But we have and we can see that you have as well, even if you’re not on the street with us every night. What we do out there, we couldn’t do it half as well without what you’ve built here.”
Willow too expressed her feelings, though she did so without speaking and in a manner unacceptable to young men. She padded quietly to the stunned young man’s side and gave him a hug, which in his shock he almost did not return. Only a brief pat on the girls back let her know he appreciated the sentiment. “Thanks,” she whispered before stepping over to join her friends. The three made their good-byes to their still confounded friend, still buzzing and enlivened by the days events.
Oz moved about the hangar, putting it back in order and looking over the maintenance machines as they moved to their programmed tasks. He gave additional instructions to have the guns repaired again, wondering if he should use another method of training. Something with less wear-and tear on the systems. His thoughts kept him company as he drove home and as he checked his home computer for updates. Unfortunately they were brought to bear on another problem as he read the news summaries and went delving for more information. Police today were at a loss to explain the method of entry used to burglarize two chemical supply warehouses in Bakersfield. None of the high security doors were forced and all of the plants’ employees were accounted for. Aside from a small amount of chemicals and equipment stolen, there was no damage to either plant, though detectives noted that many mirrors in the buildings had been broken. No other evidence links the tow crimes and investigators have few, if any leads.
“Mirrors. They do it with mirrors.” With a sigh the young man sat down at the computer, hunting down information scattered through multiple law enforcement databases and company manifests. He had no doubt what he would find and was sure he knew who was responsible, but he would have as much evidence as possible before ruining the good mood of his friends.